By Maria Helena Ariza
I was born and raised in Colombia, a country that has endured more than 50 years of armed conflict between the government and armed groups. Thousands have died and 3 million people had fled their homes. But like the majority of the urban middle class population, I never directly witnessed political violence.
I’m lucky for having felt safe and free. But I know that people in remote villages are vulnerable to terror and recruitment by armed groups. They are underserved by the government, deprived of education and other services, and forgotten by those who have the luxury of security.
I have made it my personal mission to overcome the indifference that leads to vulnerable people being ignored. I have built my career around protecting people threatened by violence.
Working for Nonviolent Peaceforce gives me the opportunity to be an agent of change in the South Sudan. Every day, my fellow peacekeepers and I strengthen relationships with locals, build their capacity to prevent violence, and provide protective accompaniment to people at risk of violence.
I recently had the privilege of meeting Miracle.* She was kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army and forced to become a combatant and a “forced wife” of soldiers. Days before we met, she was reunited with her family. Like other returnees she faced the risk of re-abduction and being ousted – or even killed.
Miracle desperately needed psychosocial services and safe transportation to the Child Transit Center where she would receive them. Our peacekeeping team and a government social worker met with Miracle’s family at their home and explained the services available for Miracle.
Miracle was deeply traumatized and unwilling to speak. Although she didn’t talk or smile, she got into our car and waited for the adults to finish their conversation – a sign that she felt safe in our presence.
With Miracle in tow, we traveled for hours on one of the most dangerous roads in the region. We dropped Miracle off at the Child Transit Center and she began the long journey toward overcoming the effects of abduction, physical abuse, and sexual violence.
After Miracle spent a month in the transit center, the NP team accompanied her to her family’s new home. As she adapts to her new, more secure life, we have follow-up visits with her, monitor her physical and emotional wellbeing, and address the security challenges she faces.
Stories like Miracle’s demonstrate the vital role Nonviolent Peaceforce plays in remote areas. For me, it’s personal. Visiting Miracle’s village takes me back halfway around the world to Colombia. I can empathize with the vulnerable communities in isolated areas of my home country. As I travel dangerous roads to meet with Miracle, I know that I am overcoming the indifference that is pervasive among my countrymen. I am risking my safety and moving out of my comfort zone to stand up for people affected by violence. Each time I meet with Miracle, I defy indifference.
Maria Helena Ariza (back row center in above photo) is a peacekeeper in South Sudan. She was born and raised in Colombia and has an M.A. in International Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame.
* Name changed to protect client.