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Mary Matheson is a British journalist, now working for the Anti-Slavery International in London.
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Mary Matheson

Paco was talking in the kitchen with Mireya Calixto, a human rights worker in northeastern Colombia, when suddenly Mireya’s husband, Mario, called her name. He was in another room in their home in Sabana de Torres, with Paco’s friend Hendrik, and his voice was quiet, scared and shaking: “I ran into the room and there were two gunmen, one pointing his gun at Mario and the other at Hendrik,” said Paco. “We were terrified and the children started crying “Don’t kill him, don’t kill him!” As Paco coolly asked what was going on, Mario took advantage of the moment and dashed for the door.
The nervous gunmen demanded to speak to Mario, but Paco explained that he and Hendrik were Europeans. “Please leave, if you want to talk, do it in another way,” said Paco calmly. And the men left.
If Paco and Hendrik had been Colombians, the gunmen would not have hesitated to spray them, and Mario, with bullets.
That, at least, is the theory of Peace Brigades International (PBI), a global human rights group employing people like Paco and Hendrik to work as “unarmed bodyguards”. There are 12 volunteers working for PBI in Colombia who “accompany” human rights defenders as they tour Colombia’s villages, documenting accounts of atrocities and giving advice to locals on their legal rights.
The PBI believes that even the most hardened of killers will think twice before blowing away unarmed foreigners. “If any of us were killed it would be a huge international incident and people know that, the military know that,” said Tessa MacKenzie, a 28-year-old British PBI volunteer in Colombia.
It may sound like woolly idealism, but it is a thoroughly researched peace strategy — and it seems to work. Partly funded by UK aid agency Christian Aid, PBI has projects in Haiti, Guatemala, Sri Lanka and North America. Not one volunteer has been killed since the project began 16 years ago.
Most of the volunteers are European or North American; they are computer analysts, nurses, human rights workers and range in age from 25 to 35. The group began its operations in Colombia in 1994, where the labyrinthine conflict pits leftwing guerrillas against a coalition of army, police and brutal death squads, with the drug trade adding a further complication.
But the armed men rarely clash, preferring to wage their bloody battle for the oil-rich zone through the civilian population. Mario Calixto, who was involved with the local Human Rights Committee, was a marked man. And the threats against him were stepped up after the committee published a report documenting murders, torture and disappearances in 1997. Several of the cases accused the local army battalion of “disappearing” people.
The death threats against Calixto were made by paramilitaries, clandestine death squads increasingly used by the army to do their dirty work. In the second half of 1997 paramilitary groups, who go by ominous names like “the headcutters” or “black hand”, stepped up their vicious extermination campaign. The links between the army and the paramilitaries have been well-documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Paradoxically, this relationship works to PBI’s advantage. Talking to the army means their message will get through to the paramilitaries — a comforting thought in a country where the violence often appears completely random. Working as a human shield in a country where 30,000 people are murdered each year could seem risky bordering on the foolish. But it is the physical pro