Saving lives can take many forms from daring emergency rescues to pioneering medical techniques to full-scale military interventions.
But sometimes all it comes down to is a simple white T-shirt and the courage to stand your ground.
Peace Brigades International (PBI) have been wearing the t-shirts and displaying the courage for the past 33 years and their newly-established Irish chapter is on the lookout for volunteers to do likewise.
PBI Ireland is one of 14 country groups around the world that have supported volunteers working in conflict areas in 16 countries since 1981 and currently maintain field projects in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya and Mexico as well as a monitoring mission in Nepal.
Their methods are both simple and sophisticated. Volunteers provide what they call protective accompaniment – living with communities, organisations and individuals facing threats either directly from a repressive state or from unofficial armed forces from which the state can not, or will not, protect them.
What appears like a simple tactic is backed by a sophisticated process of “conflict mapping” — monitoring, information gathering, networking and reporting so that sources of danger and levels of threat are tracked and responded to swiftly.
Their presence, visibility and ability to bear witness has enabled thousands to live in safety while continuing their campaigns for human rights and justice.
Karen Jeffares, co-ordinator of the Irish chapter, has worked on two PBI projects, in Colombia and Guatemala, and despite returning a year ago to resume her work with St John of God’s here, she couldn’t shake off the experience.
“It changed me as a person. You don’t leave it behind you when you come home,” she says. She managed to track down others from Ireland who had worked with PBI and 15 of them have come together to form the Ireland country group.
They are eager to talk to anyone who would like to work on a project and support them through the application process and they’re also very happy to channel donations into the organisation’s central fund.
“Volunteers tend to be in their late twenties or around the 30 mark because the work requires a strong degree of maturity but we’d also like to hear from people who are mid-career or older who may be at the same stage in life as some of the people we accompany.”
The Irish public are already indirectly supporting PBI’s work as Irish Aid provides some funding to Christian Aid in Colombia which in turn supports PBI’s crucial projects there.
Anyone who wants to find out more can get in touch with PBI can do so through www.pbi-ireland.org or www.peacebrigades.org.
Brigades bear witness to mass corruption and land grabbing on a grand scale
Colombia’s bloody land war robbed Yomaira Mendoza of her husband and brother but it can’t take from her the determination to seek justice.
The 34-year-old mother of two is one of hundreds of thousands of small farmers forced off their land in the mid-1990s in murderous military operations the government claimed were designed to flush out FARC guerrillas and their sympathisers.
In reality, it was a cruel excuse to steal the land and give it to agribusiness companies, rich ranchers and drug barons who threw into the violent mix their own private security armies of paramilitaries and criminal thugs.
Exiled in poverty in the cities for a decade, a small number of courageous campesinos began moving back to the countryside to reclaim their land.
Yomaira’s brother quickly paid the price, his torture and murder carried out in front of her. Her husband, Jose, was next, shot from the shadows as she walked beside him in 2007.
She and many others know their names are on death lists.
PBI have been in Colombia for 20 years, longer than in any other country — an indication of how dangerous the situation is.
Volunteers live full-time in one community of returned farmers and maintain continuous contact with several others, visiting regularly, accompanying members when they have to leave the relative safety of their fenced villages and providing their physical presence in times of heightened tension.
PBI brought Yomaira to live in one such community early this year when an attempt was made on her life after she lodged an official claim for the restoration of her family’s land under recent laws that give her the theoretical right to do so but leave her in peril if she does.
Unfortunately, her situation became critical and PBI arranged for her to move to the capital, Bogota. She has since had to leave Colombia and with the continued support of PBI, has refuge in Spain.
In Ireland this week for PBI’s Irish launch, she said the relief at being safe was wonderful. “It’s like my life before,” she said, referring to the now distant time before her loved ones were taken. But last week, police began harassing her 15-year-old son, who lives in a city with extended family, and arrested and held him for two days without cause.
“They did it to get my attention. They are trying to make me come back,” she says. “I want to be there now but it is too dangerous.”
While the efforts of PBI alone could not ensure Yomaira’s safety in Colombia, she believes firmly in the value of a peaceful international presence in her home country.
“It’s very important that people from outside can see what is happening and can give a message to the world. Otherwise we are alone and we are as good as dead.”