In Colombia, a mission for peace
By Steve Salisbury
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
December 10, 2002
VILLA DE LA PAZ, Colombia - With prospects for peace in Colombia as remote as at any time during the nation's 38-year-old civil war, hope is being kept alive by a most unusual mediator - an American missionary who has known the Marxist rebels since they kidnapped him almost two decades ago.
Russell Martin Stendal, 47, a Protestant missionary from Minneapolis, had been working in Colombia as a rancher and operating a two-Cessna flying service for about eight years when he was taken captive by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in August 1983.
He was released five months later, making him more fortunate than some of the 120 Americans who have been kidnapped in Colombia, mostly by guerrillas. In 1999, FARC rebels kidnapped and killed three American activists who were building a school for an Indian tribe. The FARC later called the slayings a "misunderstanding."
Instead of fleeing Colombia, Mr. Stendal, his Colombian wife, Marina, and their four children continue to live in the country. They spend much of their time at a countryside home on the edge of the grounds of the defunct Lomalinda Translation Center, near Puerto Lleras in Meta province.
Despite a State Department warning that the FARC extorts from, kidnaps and kills U.S. citizens in Colombia, Mr. Stendal and his younger brother, "Chaddy," have acted as an informal "back channel" and sometimes as mediators in Meta among the FARC, the vigilante United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), local communities and the Colombian army. The brothers do this as part of their efforts to evangelize all the warring parties.
"Divine providence put us in the situations where we have had trajectories for many years with both sides that has led to the trust that there is now," Mr. Stendal said.
In 1964, the year the FARC was founded, the Stendal family moved from Minnesota to Colombia. Russell Stendal was 8. His father, Chad Stendal Sr., a civil engineer, was among the founders of the Lomalinda Translation Center of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) in Meta.
SIL was set up by Wycliffe Bible Translators to translate the New Testament into Colombia's Indian languages. According to Russell Stendal, the Lomalinda center grew to have nearly 100 households and 300 volunteers - mostly Americans.
But in the mid-1970s, SIL became the target of unsubstantiated rumors that it was a U.S. government entity, and in 1981, one of its members, Chester Bitterman, was kidnapped and killed by guerrillas of the now-disarmed and legalized April 19 Movement. Another American missionary was kidnapped by the FARC in the mid-1990s, and SIL's Lomalinda center closed about a year later, Russell Stendal said.
"It is astonishing we are all still alive," his father said. "Of the 23 closest personal friends of Chaddy, 20 were killed and three fled the country." Russell Stendal and his brother bought five small houses at Lomalinda, and there Russell Stendal started his first radio station in Colombia, Marfil Stereo at 88.8 FM. That was nearly four years ago.
Eighty percent of the station's broadcast content is secular, and 20 percent religious, Russell Stendal said. He later added Radio Alcaravan, 1530 AM , and a short-wave station, the Voice of Your Conscience at 6010 on the 49-meter band, which can be heard in the evening in North America and Europe. These two stations are primarily religious.
"Our programming isn't typical Christian programming. It is not trying to get people into our church and not into somebody else's church," Russell Stendal said.
"We are trying to bring people into a personal relationship with God, no matter to what group they belong," said his mother, Patricia Stendal.
"We produce programs that have solid values, and that deal with attitude and a change of heart, of being tolerant of other people's views and ideas," Russell Stendal said.
Mr. Stendal's broadcasting career grew out of his writing his first book, "Rescue the Captors," which he began while a captive of the FARC. The Stendal family said it paid $55,000 for Russell Stendal's freedom, down from the $500,000 ransom demand. The Stendals say they also "donated" a year later more than 80 percent of Chad Stendal Sr.'s 74,000-acre cattle ranch in Meta to landless Indians and peasants - an action that gained the family good will from the guerrillas.
Russell Stendal's story reached President Reagan, and he was invited to the White House. Mr. Reagan's director for domestic drug abuse policy met with him and opened doors for Mr. Stendal to make an anti-drug documentary and a two-year speaking tour of American high schools and colleges.
In the 1980s and early '90s, the late Rev. Rafael Garcia Herreros, a Colombian priest and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, enlisted Russell Stendal in joint Protestant-Catholic outreach efforts toward outlawed groups. Mr. Stendal tells of driving Father Garcia to secret meetings with the late Medellin cocaine cartel leader Pablo Escobar, where the priest persuaded Escobar to surrender.
Except for rustling Stendal cattle in the past two decades, the FARC and the AUC have not bothered the family, Russell Stendal said.
That's "because they see we are not political," said Chad Stendal Sr., who lives with his wife in Bogota. "And they also see that we physically help a lot of people, no matter who they are. We have helped a lot of wounded while they were dying."
Last month, Villa de la Paz, a community of about 600 people nearly 50 miles south of Lomalinda in an area dominated by the FARC, held a "Forum for Peace." Villager Hilberto Saenz says the Stendal brothers agreed to help organize it.
Residents complained of a deteriorating situation. Some accused the AUC and soldiers of collaborating in a campaign of killings against FARC sympathizers in nearby towns, and they feared it would reach Villa de la Paz.
"We cannot deny that there are guerrillas here," said the village treasurer, a 58-year-old man who asked not to be named. "But we are not guerrillas. So, we would like the government to allow the food, medicine and things necessary to live to enter town."
Some observers question the need for such a lightly inhabited area, where coca is heavily cultivated, to receive frequent, large deliveries of gasoline, which can be used to extract unrefined cocaine. One villager said the gasoline tankers also smuggle out the coca alkaloid in liquid form.
Villa de la Paz was founded in 1986 by peasants and coca growers, under the watch of the FARC - Colombia's largest guerrilla group, with an estimated 14,000 to 17,000 troops - and this has put its residents in the FARC-AUC-and-army cross fire.
In May, say villagers, laundress Luz Dari Caiceido was killed by government helicopter gunfire on the edge of Puerto Toledo, 18 miles south of Villa de la Paz.
Three guerrillas were said to be on the outskirts, but "bullets were hitting the town," said Edilma Marin, who was working at Puerto Toledo's communal pharmacy that day and says she saw Miss Caiceido's bullet-riddled body. Mrs. Marin said the victim was a destitute single mother who left five young children and a tar-paper shack.
Perhaps 5,000 people came to Villa de la Paz during the Nov. 23 peace forum, including truckloads of unarmed FARC guerrillas in civilian clothes. It was a hot, sunny day just north of the equator. About 400 people packed a tin-roofed village hall, and hundreds more filled the nearby streets. The smell of veal roasting on spits filled the air.
The hall's pink concrete walls were adorned with anti-government and anti-Plan Colombia banners. Speaker after speaker denounced abuses by the army and the vigilantes, but not by the guerrillas.
After one old man criticized the United States as the greatest human rights violator in history, a village leader close to the FARC took the microphone to reply. "The United States has two classes," he said, "the exploiters and the exploited. We have Americans with us here, and we honor them."
Russell Stendal, who was introduced as one of "the exploited," then took the mike.
"Someone told me, 'If our enemies are fearsome, then we are going to be more evil,'" he said. "Instead of being a contest of who can be the worst, why not see who can do the most good?"
His listeners applauded when Russell Stendal mentioned his belief that the FARC's 43rd Front, which controls the area, didn't have a policy of kidnapping during the past five years - unlike the FARC in general.
After the forum, people crowded around the American's red Chevy Suburban, where assistants passed out some of the 7,000 religious books and Bibles given away that day. Marxism is atheist, but many of the FARC's rank and file were raised as Catholics or Protestants.
Nacho, 27, an officer of the FARC's 43rd Front, received Russell Stendal and others just outside Villa de la Paz two hours after the peace forum. He sat with the visitors in plastic chairs under a thatched roof near a small wooden house. Trucks occasionally roared by, raising dust from an adjacent dirt road.
Accompanied by about 10 armed guerrillas in camouflage fatigues, Nacho said the idea of a regional peace forum was something to be considered. Three years of virtually fruitless national peace talks between the FARC and the previous Colombian president, Andres Pastrana, collapsed 10 months ago.
But Nacho, who said he is a 10-year FARC veteran, dismissed Russell Stendal's idea that each warring group give up 150 rifles to be melted into a peace monument. "We need the rifles," he replied, laughing.
His coppery face frowned in evident disagreement when Hamilton Castro, president of the private Pro-Colombia Foundation, said: "Sincerely, if the FARC commits terrorist acts, then it is terrorist. If the state commits terrorist acts, then it is terrorist."
Nacho responded that it is a time of war, and that the FARC has a right to act against its enemies, through means such as bombings and executions. "We are not terrorists," he said. "We are fighting for the people."
He said it would be hard to renew peace negotiations as long as the FARC was designated as "terrorist" and U.S. extradition orders were pending against its leaders.
Getting into the driver's seat of a green sport utility vehicle, Nacho smiled and shook hands, saying he enjoyed the visit. Mr. Stendal handed him a camouflage-covered Bible.
The next day, Russell Stendal's team left Villa de la Paz. At an army checkpoint en route to Puerto Lleras, a soldier snatched a small peace pennant affixed to Mr. Stendal's side mirror. When Mr. Stendal complained, a sergeant ordered the soldier to give it back.
Later, among the riverside ruins of Puerto Lleras, a soldier named Alex searched Mr. Stendal in a routine security check and recognized his ID card.
Alex pulled out a well-worn copy of Mr. Stendal's book - "The Beatitudes, God's Plan for Battle" - and asked him to autograph it.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
In Colombia, a mission for peace