We’re sitting on the front veranda of a small house in the mountains, maybe 90 minutes’ drive from the Colombian city of Bucaramanga, whose beauty queen has just been crowned Miss Colombia. I know this because at around 2 one morning we’d been woken by explosions, and I’d thought the war had come to Bucaramanga – but it was just fireworks, celebrating her victory.
I’ve lost the copy of the current affairs magazine I bought in Bogotá airport on the way in, which turned out to have a pull-out special on the Miss Colombia competition. If I’d had the time, I could have joined other readers in a detailed evaluation of the busto of Miss Atlántico versus the posterior of Miss Chocó. Quite a feature for a political magazine. How the journalists rated Miss Santander from Bucaramanga, we’ll never know.
But sitting above the cloudline that morning, with a tame squirrel hopping about around our feet, we’re in a different jurisdiction. A different Colombia. Through the front door, I can see a woman criss-crossing the corridor as she cooks, and beyond her, the two young guerrillas who’d been on the veranda when we arrived washing themselves in the back garden. Steam rises from a tin bath; they’re stripped to the waist in the morning chill, joking around with the water. Later, one of the young men – they’re maybe 17, 18 years old – settles down at a wooden table with a young woman from the house. They’re opening a notebook, and laughing; it seems he’s teaching her to read.
We’re a film crew – do we film any of this household activity we’re privileged to glimpse? We do not. We don’t want to have material on us that might compromise the women – and we don’t want to do anything that might compromise the next stage of our shoot.
Which is in the hands of two sets of people: Christoph Kleber, from the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, whose mission to free a hostage we’re following; and the leadership of the ELN, the National Liberation Army of Colombia, whose local branch is holding the hostage. Is this hostage a big landowner, an army general, a police chief? He is not. He is a hairdresser from Bucaramanga. But Kleber isn’t here to judge (and neither are we). He’s here to press for the liberation of the hostage on human rights grounds, without payment of a ransom.
As I write this, I’m reading that a very early combatant in the ELN was the Catholic priest Camilo Torres, author of Revolution: A Christian Imperative. As you all undoubtedly know, Torres is, like Che, a saint of armed revolutionary struggle, particularly since he was killed by the Colombian army in 1966. Was I aware of the Camilo Torres connection at the time? I was not. I’d come onto the shoot late in the process – there’d been another, very famous, documentary director on this BBC series, who’d filmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo; but he’d fallen out with the producers, or vice versa, and they’d got a very un-famous director to replace him. Lucky me. Coming in after a long process of negotiation between the producers and the ICRC meant I didn’t have to shape the shoot from scratch. Don’t think I even knew we’d be dealing with the ELN. (I see, by the way, that the possible beatification of Torres – making him an actual saint – is roiling the Catholic Church.)
So we’re milling about, hoping Christoph’s connection will materialize out of the mist, and our reporter, John Simpson, is tapping away at a small hand-held device. What are you writing, John? He’s writing a chapter of his new book, and it turns out to be about interviewing Margaret Thatcher. I’m impressed by his ability to cut off from our surroundings and cast his mind back to London. When I look up what the book might have been, I’m even more impressed – if it was Strange Places, Questionable People, it was published 1 January 1998. We’re on the veranda in October 1997. His publishers must have been desperate.
I don’t remember what happened that meant we were back in the vehicle and suddenly at our destination, standing around with a small crowd of fighters on the mountainside. You mean this is it? But but…we don’t have any shots of Christoph arriving. Could the fighters perhaps set up a road-block, so we can film Christoph entering guerrilla territory (though the ELN actually controlled much of the countryside we’d driven through). Christoph is a former journalist, and it seems the ELN have watched a lot of movies too, because in a matter of moments they’ve pulled a small tree across the road and are standing by to flag down the vehicle. And thus do documentaries capture reality…
We also film Christoph meeting members of one of the anti-communist paramilitary organizations. These paramilitary units, dressed up as civil defence, were set up, armed and trained by the Colombian military, and staffed by landowners, ranchers, off-duty policemen, etc. We meet at a command post, a bungalow with a large expanse of scrubby lawn between it and the fence, and a radio transmitter in the back room that’s constantly busy. This will be the first time this unit in Christoph’s patch has agreed to meet with the ICRC. The two men put their pistols on the table in front of them, and listen as Christoph talks about the need to protect civilians – but civilians are by definition who the paramilitaries are killing…
I can’t begin to give an adequate account of Colombia and its politics from our brief experience (particularly since everything was supposed to change when the Colombian government and the largest guerrilla organization, FARC, signed what appeared to be a comprehensive peace accord in 2016). But it was impossible not to notice how thoroughly absent the state was outside the cities. Young people in the countryside clearly had very few options; joining the guerrillas, with the thought you could overturn historic injustice and exploitation, probably offered a sense of purpose along with adventure and comradeship – for women as well; this striking piece in Foreign Policy says as many as 40 per cent of FARC’s forces were women (it also describes what’s happening to some of these women since FARC demobilised: a powerful, and disheartening, story).
The realities of the armed struggle were murky, however. And even if you started out as a principled revolutionary, you might still find yourself on a mountainside a few years down the line – as the ELN commander we talked with did – struggling to justify your movement’s use of kidnapping and extortion to the likes of John Simpson.
Was our hairdresser released? Towards the end of our edit, he was. While I’ve been writing this, I’ve found research by a US academic, Danielle Gilbert, that argues that protection rackets were (maybe still are) a primary source of funding for the guerrilla movements, and that kidnapping for ransom was a way of enforcing payment; kidnapping “punished tax evasion,” she says. Maybe the hairdresser had been refusing to pay. The ICRC’s intervention meant he was released without payment of a ransom – though we don’t know what happened subsequently. We heard that ELN supporters working in the banks would notify the movement who had what in their accounts.
Our film, A World without Rules, was meant to explore how the ICRC could conduct its core mission of protecting the “lives and dignity” of victims of armed conflict when conflicts were increasingly being fought, not between states that had signed up to the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law (and could therefore be pressed to honor their obligations), but between armed groups whose chain of command may be chaotic and for whom the Geneva Conventions were an unknown.
The material my predecessor had shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo followed agonized ICRC debates about whether to withdraw their mission from the country because some of their volunteers had been killed by an armed group, despite being clearly badged as humanitarian workers in their Red Cross jerkins. With editor Robyn Wright, we interwove the DRC and Colombia stories – and it seems this worked, because to my amazement our film was shortlisted for a One World Media award. The Simpson stardust probably helped. (But we didn’t win.)
Twenty-five years after our shoot, some Colombian civilians continue to be hemmed in by the army, the paramilitaries, and the ELN – this piece from November 2021 gives a shocking account of the effects of that. Colombia has a new president, Gustavo Petro, who joined a guerrilla organization when he was 17, and moved with them into democratic politics; in August 2022 he lifted arrest warrants against ELN leaders and made it possible for talks towards a settlement to resume in Havana. Meanwhile the ICRC continues to negotiate for the release of hostages in Colombia, and sometimes succeeds, as this report from September 2022 demonstrates. “The constant dialogue that we maintain with all the armed actors enables the success of these humanitarian operations,” the head of the local ICRC office is quoted as saying. “We work confidentially with strict principles of neutrality and impartiality.”
There’s a lot to say about the ICRC’s “neutrality and impartiality,” and I am not the person to say it with any authority. But let me tell you what I’ve gleaned as I’ve started to think more about this. The Ukrainian government was furious that ICRC president Peter Maurer met Sergey Lavrov in Moscow in March this year; now again, on the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Twitter feed, there’s a picture of Maurer smiling and shaking Lavrov’s hand at the UN General Assembly in September. Practicing neutrality and impartiality in order to gain access to victims, or giving legitimacy to an aggressor?
The Russians are also key to humanitarian assistance in Syria. In 2019 the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre argued that the Syrian regime had taken de facto control of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent; I can’t find a direct ICRC response to this, but in its 2021 Syria report, the ICRC says: “Despite security challenges and political blockages, we are finding ways to repair critical infrastructure and make sure people have access to basic services such as clean water, electricity, and functioning health services.” I suppose the question is who those “people” are, since the Syrian regime blocks aid to displaced civilians in rebel-held areas.
The families of Palestinian prisoners think the ICRC ought to be trying to secure their release, since they consider the thousands held in Israeli jails as political prisoners; this piece by the deputy protection coordinator for the ICRC in the Occupied Territories and Israel reflects fairly openly (and sadly) on these frustrations.
Let me stop pretending I can be definitive about any of this. In our film, there’s an epic wide-shot by cameraman Lawrence Gardner (who has unfortunately died). We’re high up on a mountain on one side of a valley as Christoph’s jeep makes its way along a narrow road cut into the mountain lower down on the other side. Lawrence pans across, following the small solitary vehicle as its Red Cross flag flutters against the vastness of the mountain. It’s a terrific shot, that could be emblematic of a lonely, dogged struggle against huge odds – which of course is how we used it. Does this romanticise the work of an ICRC delegate like Christoph? I don’t think so.
Jenny Morgan is a documentary filmmaker and a longtime London resident. For more information, see http://jennymorganfilmswrites.wordpress.com.