Colombia's curbside course in Manners 101

My attention fixes on the headlines of the morning paper. I hardly notice the young woman in the kelly-green jumpsuit (and matching cap) who runs up and plants her booted feet right in front of me.

"Sir, could you please use the crosswalk next time?" she says, pointing out the marked crossing I just missed by half a block after buying the newspaper. "We're trying to make the city safer for you and more orderly for everybody."

Busted by the civility police. In Colombia, no less.

Although delivered with a gentle smile, the admonition has my sense of place completely discombobulated.

This is not Zurich, Dusseldorf, or even Singapore. We're talking Bogot, by reputation one of the more uncivilized places on earth. Kidnappings, car bombings, high-profile death threats are daily fare here, not to mention the guerrilla conflict in the rural areas.

But now, drawing a moral and sartorial green line in the public consciousness here, are Bogot's "civic guides." A brigade of 1,000 young people are being deployed on the streets to round the city's rough edges, "to help motorists and pedestrians get along, discourage delinquency, and make everything a little more civilized," one of the guides tells me.

Riiiight - is my initial reaction.

But come to think of it, the home of Gabriel Garca Mrquez surrealism seems like just the place to encounter such civility guides. What better place to station sentinels against the dehumanizing effects of four decades of violence? Actually, there are other signs of a public trying to counter the darkness here. There are national letter-writing campaigns for children, asking them to tell the country's leaders (official and unofficial) what kind of country they want. There are park-bench ads asking Bogotnos to respect their neighbors, and newspaper spots declaring, "Respect the pedestrian, it could be the person you fall in love with."

All are efforts at cultivating the solidarity, caring, and plain humanity that a wide variety of people here say must be more evident if Colombians - most of whom have only known a state of internal war - are ever to be able to say, "My country is at peace."

Down the street, I spot a guide helping three smartly dressed businessmen through an intersection holding a pingpong-paddle-sized sign reading "Stop!" But less than a block away is a reminder of the deterioration the civic guides seek to reverse.

Some 300 of Colombia's war refugees, just a fraction of the estimated 800,000 displaced in the last three years, camp in the street. This group stormed the International Red Cross office here three months ago. "We don't have anything against the Red Cross, it's because we respect their work that we came here," says Edil Zuiga, one of the protestors. "We got fed up with the indifference of the government." Ironically, the Red Cross was targeted because it's seen as an organization that might do something.

Reto Meister, head of Latin American operations for the International Red Cross, says the occupiers "are like a little Colombia," not all poor, but all with some humanitarian need. Mr. Meister now finds himself in the strange position of protecting the invaders. "We now keep a 24-hour presence here to impede the police from moving in and cleaning this all out," he says. "That would be disastrous for the Red Cross," which has a larger permanent presence in Colombia than anywhere else in the world.

Not all Colombians have been able to face their country's deterioration. More than 800,000 Colombians have fled the country over the past 14 months. In some cases, these are exactly the kind of citizens the country needs. Last week, Francisco Santos, chief editor of the Bogot daily El Tiempo, left after receiving credible death threats from the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the country's largest rebel group. Mr. Santos apparently offended the rebels with his Pas Libre (Free Country) anti-kidnapping organization and the related No Ms! (No More!) national marches he coordinated.

Against such barbarity, Bogot's civic guides risk appearing hopelessly quaint. But some Bogotnos admit that just seeing the guides reminds them that civility is not lost. "We need these lessons in civility, no matter how small they may seem," says Augusto Ramrez-Ocampo, a former mayor of Bogot. Now focused on national peace initiatives, he recalls how as mayor he closed off some main thoroughfares on Sundays "to give citizens a place to be active and interact."

"The contrasts in this city can be astonishing," Mr. Ramirez-Ocampo says, "but the encouraging side of that is that amidst the daily examples of inhumanity, good things are happening."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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