Seeds of peace

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Violence is such an integral part of life in Colombia that by law schools have to teach co-existence, peace and non-violence. Anastasia Moloney reports from Medellin

Perched on a steep hilltop, amid fertile valleys and cloud-capped mountains, lies the Atanasio Girardot education institute, 20 miles north of Medellin, Colombia's second city. Palm trees line the volleyball court.

Water gently trickles from a fountain, providing relief from the muggy weather. Inside, the school promotes a culture of peace. There are special projects, a Sowers of Peace group for 12 to 13-year-olds, ethics lessons and a student council.

The tranquil interior is a contrast to the daily violence outside. For 42 years, a civil war between left-wing guerrillas, the army and right-wing paramilitaries has ravaged the country. The insurgents are fighting against exploitation by multinationals of natural resources; they say the companies do not plough any profits into the local impoverished communities. The fighting has allowed drug trafficking to flourish Nine years ago, in response to the armed conflict, the Government required schools to implement a curriculum focusing on the themes of co-existence, peace and non-violence. With support from the local diocese and education authority, teachers at Atanasio school have adapted ethics, religious education, social sciences and art to focus on the teaching of human values and non-violence. "Our approach is integral and interdisciplinary. We involve the church, parents and outside agencies," says Cruz Ossa, the school's project co-ordinator. The bishop blessed the Sowers of Peace project during an inauguration ceremony.

The students on this project - the school serves the surrounding rural population and the town of Girardota - are seen as the future builders of peace. They disseminate messages of hope and non-violence by sharing their work with other pupils during assemblies and extra-curricular activities.

Every term, one week is dedicated to the promotion of human values. Each form is assigned a specific value, such as respect or solidarity. "We interpreted what we felt our value, sincerity, meant. Then we presented our work to the rest of the school," says Jesica Castrillon,12. Her classmate, 13-year-old Julian Jiminez, points to a painted flag made from pieces of white cloth. "During art lessons, we painted our images of a Colombia without violence. We then sewed them together to make one flag."

Pupils enthusiastically show examples of their work completed during the three-hour weekly ethics and religious education lessons. There are colourful booklets made by students, entitled "Peace and Non-Violence", that include poems about tolerance. Next to them, symbolic black seeds are enclosed inside a pile of envelopes with handwritten letters, ready to be sent to pen pals in Spain. The Sowers of Peace pupils keep a weekly Diary of Dreams, a collection of their thoughts about the future and good deeds they have done during the school year. The completion of the diaries is marked by a ceremony during which pupils publicly hand in their work to teachers.

Julian recalls one of his favourite good deeds. Last March, 100 pupils participated in a peace march organised by the local community in protest against a spate of murders and kidnappings by guerrillas and paramilitaries in the region.

The valleys around Antioquia reflect the impact of the civil war on the country. Here they receive the highest numbers of forcibly displaced persons, refugees from nearby provinces. Staff are preparing for a new intake of children from displaced families who will arrive in stages during the year.

"There will be teacher workshops throughout the year. To help displaced children integrate into the school community, we're placing even more emphasis on the principles of diversity and tolerance in our teaching," says Ms Ossa.

Displacement is a delicate issue. The school's policy is not to treat these students any differently and not to talk about their particular cases in public. "It's best to keep each child's circumstances as private as possible. Blaming a particular side, either the guerrilla or paramilitaries, for the reason why a family had to flee, can implicate a student with a particular group, which may have repercussions for staff and students," explains Ms Ossa.

The government has made the enrolling easier for displaced children. They are entitled to join a school without a uniform, enrolment fee or identity papers.

Democracy is important in building a culture of peace in schools. By law, pupils must elect a student council. "It's about children understanding that democracy is a peaceful alternative to violence." Ms Ossa says. School elections are high profile, with a day in March dedicated just to student elections and voting.

Violence at home and a culture of beating children as a form of punishment is another issue confronting teachers. Ms Ossa feels that Colombia's armed conflict plays a part in causing high incidences of violence that children see and experience at home. "We live in a violent society. At home, children learn that violence is used to solve family disputes," she says.

To combat this culture, the school initiated a "school for parents" designed to promote parenting skills.

A culture of peace is also to be found 15 miles south along the deep valley, towards the town centre of Copacabana, at the Jose Miguel of Restrepo and Puerta school. Orlando Gaviria, one of two specialist ethics teachers, starts a lesson by writing on the blackboard in capital letters the value of the day - listening.

Mr Gaviria, a trained psychologist, directs a class discussion around what constitutes good and bad behaviour. "What about Bart in 'The Simpsons'? Is he an example of good behaviour?" he asks. The debate leads pupils to reflect upon how they behave with their own families.

Mr Gaviria believes that getting students to share personal experiences with their peers is an important instrument in generating a culture of peaceful co-existence. Laura is the first pupil to volunteer. She walks tentatively towards the front . Her classmates listen as she relates how her cousin was kidnapped last year. Another pupil describes a fight he had recently with his older brother. The class is asked to offer suggestions as to how they would resolve the argument.

"The war has left Colombians feeling desensitised about violence," says Mr Gaviria. "Sharing experiences can break down the walls of indifference."

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