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Born in bloodshed but living in hope

New schools established and threats overcome in San Jose de Apartado

New schools established and threats overcome in San Jose de Apartado

In northern Colombia, both the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado and the unique education system it has developed have their roots in tragedy. The Peace Community was founded in 1997, when farmers and rural workers displaced by armed conflict in Colombia declared the abandoned town of San Jose a neutral zone where all arms were prohibited.

But the Colombian government and the military accused the community of sympathising with the left-wing guerrillas also present in the region. In February 2005, paramilitaries working with the army massacred eight community members. Among them were three children, aged 11, six and one.

Following the massacre, the Peace Community's state school teachers abandoned the region and the Ministry of Education turned down requests for replacements. "The government's idea was to bring an end to the community, to make the children leave if they wanted an education," said Arley Tuberquia, the education coordinator in one of the Peace Community's 11 villages.

But now, despite ongoing threats from armed groups in the area, new schools have been established and are thriving. The community has achieved this thanks to volunteer teachers who viewed educating children in such hostile surroundings as a great opportunity.

"We began to realise that we are the owners of our education," Mr Tuberquia said. Community representatives, teachers, parents and children from all the villages met to discuss a new "autonomous and alternative" education system; in 2007, the "University of Resistance" was born.

The new system was implemented in schools in 10 of the villages. The schools now teach 5- to 14-year-olds a combination of academic subjects and lessons on community life, rural Colombian culture and the Peace Community's principles of resistance, solidarity, pluralism, transparency, freedom and justice.

Lessons often take place outside the classroom: there are sites around the villages where pupils can see the practical applications of what they learn. Other classes are given in the surrounding forests, rivers and farms so that teaching is permeated by an understanding of the environment and sustainable living.

"The children learn how to read, write, multiply, divide," said Marta Vasquez, one of the community's volunteer teachers, "but they also learn about the countryside and the importance of having healthy food and a peaceful life."

The schools also teach about the conflict, which continues to rage in the region, and the community's neutral stance. The children, who are all victims of the violence, are thereby given space to learn to cope with trauma and bereavement. "From working in the school, the children know that the rest of the community feels the same: the whole community feels the pain and the emptiness of the loss of a loved one," Mr Tuberquia said.

But the children also learn that the community does not respond with aggression or hate but with peaceful resistance.

"Education will be the door that opens so that the community can continue and have a future," Mr Tuberquia said.

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