BE-LA Past & Present Encounters: Life stories from the exhibition

Hanne Cottyn

To celebrate the ENCUENTRO Kick-Off, the expo BE-LA PAST AND PRESENT ENCOUNTERS was created, exhibiting archival materials from AMSAB-ISG and KADOC-KU Leuven. In this article, the protagonists of the exposition tell the stories behind the objects from their personal archives. The exposition brings together the accounts of Alma De Walsche in Ecuador, Raf Allaerts in Guatemala, Luis (Ludovic) Vandaele in Brazil, and Isabelle Vertriest and Eric Van der Meirsch in Nicaragua.


Alma De Walsche about Ecuador:

“We have received more than what we have been able to contribute”

Interview and text by Eva Willems


Alma De Walsche is a journalist specialized in Latin America. Inspired by liberation theology, she left for Ecuador in the 1980s with her husband Dirk Willems, where they lived and worked for five years in a small village in the Andes. After her return to Belgium, she followed the developments in Central and South America closely for MO* magazine and its precursor Wereldwijd.


In the 1970s, Latin America was much closer than today. The Chileans who fled for the Pinochet regime were welcomed with open arms and there was a great deal of involvement in the horror of the military dictatorships in, for example, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. For me, reading the book "Let Me Speak!," that tells the poignant life story of the Bolivian miner's wife Domitila Barrios under the dictatorship of Banzer, was a turning point. I was 23 years old then. The Antwerp Latin America center SAGO and the Bolivia Center played an important role in the sensitization of people here.

Important ideological anchor points for the movement were the bishops' conferences of Medellín (1972) and Puebla (1979), inspired by the second Vatican Council calling for more solidarity with the poor. We immersed ourselves in liberation theology and carefully studied the texts of the Medellín conference. In it, the violence of the guerrilla movements was accounted for as a response to structural violence and oppression. A widely used lecture was that of the exodus: the story of the oppression by the pharaoh and the journey to the promised land through the desert. Paolo Freire's pedagogy of the oppressed - the idea that you look bottom-up, together with the people, at their reality - was also a source of inspiration. That revolutionary atmosphere in which priests openly supported the armed struggle or even became guerrillas in Colombia and Central America was very much alive here in Flanders.

We ourselves were closely involved in the work of Broederlijk Delen, and they especially focused on what was going on in Central America: the liberation struggle of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, against the Somoza regime, and the FMLN in El Salvador against Duarte. Duarte was a Christian Democrat president, so that political movement was under international pressure to condemn the regime in El Salvador. Here too, in Brussels and Antwerp, we participated in large demonstrations against the CVP. The Salvadoran Bishop Romero was one of the pioneers of liberation theology and a great example for the solidarity movement here. In that movement, left-progressive Catholics as well as Trotskyists and Socialists found each other.

This involved "el hombre nuevo and la sociedad nueva", a new person in a new society. The victory of the Sandinistas on 19 July 1979 was truly a milestone. A guerrilla who overthrew a dictator, that hadn’t happened since Cuba! This second revolutionary wave, however, was fundamentally different, just because of that important influence of liberation theology. The fact that a Christian movement was behind the revolutionary project was a very strong signal in a continent where the Church and religion are so powerful.
It was in this context of solidarity with the victims of the military dictatorships and the rise of liberation theology that at a given moment we decided to give up our job and leave for Latin America. Some people - including our parents - did not understand that well, but we wanted to change the world and we wanted to experience what it meant to live in such a reality. Not with the intention to stay there. But as, let us say, a deepening of solidarity.

We prepared for the departure with a training in the college for Latin American. That consisted of a four months of full-time and internal training, inspired by the liberation theology and in an international group of Belgians, Swiss, Poles, French ... Also in Madrid and in Verona there were colleges for Latin America. In the morning we had Spanish classes and in the afternoon there were lectures. One of the teachers was the Bruges priest Jan De Plancke, who lived in El Salvador but had just returned because the situation there was too dangerous. He came from the heat of the fight and was a personal friend of Romero. Jan was an important source of inspiration for us. When he heard that we wanted to go to Latin America but that Flemish NGOs could not offer something that seemed really suitable to us, it was he who advised us to contact the Ecuadorian bishop Proaño, a good friend of Romero and formed in the same spirit.

Before we finally left, we first traveled to Latin America for three months. Our first stop - the very first contact with the continent - was in Caracas, Venezuela. The contrast between the marble floors of the airport and the reality of the slum where the mission of the sisters of Vorselaar lay and where we stayed, was immediately in your face. I will never forget the smell of the sweltering hot streets at six o'clock in the morning. We had prepared so intensely, we had read, discussed, followed trainings ... but I never thought Latin America would smell like that. After Caracas we went to Ecuador for six weeks, a week to Panama and a month to Nicaragua, where in July 1981 the second anniversary of the revolution was celebrated. Sympathizers from many European and Latin American countries came on 'pilgrimage' to 'the new world' that started in Nicaragua. As "compañero internacionalista" you were already welcomed to the immigration at the airport with open arms. The atmosphere was euphoric!

In November 1981 - we were then 26 - we finally left for five years to Ecuador to work as volunteers in the diocese of Proaño, who was known for his commitment to the indigenous population. To report on our work and to raise awareness in Belgium, the support group 'Minga' was established that published a magazine, collected funds and discussed the processes that were underway in Latin America. That solidarity was heart-warming.

We ended up in Guasuntos, a small village in the Andes, surrounded by indigenous communities. The reality we came into - the mountains, the height, the cold, the poverty, the indigenous culture - was very different from the atmosphere we knew from the solidarity movement. In the solidarity movement in Flanders we were mainly familiar with urban Central American culture, but this was still a different kettle of fish altogether! Ecuador was totally unknown in Belgium at that time. When we arrived, hardly thirty Belgians were registered at the embassy across the country. The population in Chimborazo province, of which 85% was indigenous at that time, was marked by years of exploitation by large landowners, but there was no tradition of resistance and guerrilla. Our social work in Guasuntos and the surrounding communities revolved around the problems of racism and exploitation that the indigenous people experienced in their daily lives. The pastoral work meant a lot to the people in this deserted region because finally someone paid attention to them. At the same time it also brought us very close to the indigenous vision of life and death, their rituals and their community life.

An indigenous outburst against oppression came only in 1990, when we were back in Belgium. The CONAIE, the national umbrella organization for indigenous organizations, paralyzed the whole country for a week. People flocked on the streets, both indigenous people and oppressed mestizos. The seeds of that revolt had been planted in the liberation theology, and then the foundation was laid for the organization of Ecuador as a plurinational state that recognizes the indigenous identity. But it was not a real, haunting revolution.
When I was with the Zapatists in Mexico in 1995 to report on the third revolutionary wave for Wereldwijd, I stumbled upon a reality that was almost a copy of what we had seen and experienced in Ecuador. Bishop Samuel Ruíz of San Cristobal, in Chiapas - also a liberation theologian - was in all things the equal of Proaño and the situation of the indigenous people was very similar. That they were able to revolutionize while there seemed to be hardly any movement in Ecuador, that was hard to grasp for me. I got a writer's block for the first time. The very nature of the third wave was precisely that the indigenous identity mixed with the revolutionary Marxist-Leninist ideology, and that in the cyber age. It was at the same time the first 'postmodern' guerrilla in a maya context.

At the time we left for Ecuador with the idea that we could really mean something, but in the end I think the opposite is true. We have received more than what we have been able to contribute. It is an experience that you will never be able to discard and that fundamentally changes the way you look at reality. The realization that there are people who live in a totally different cultural and material context, if you have been immersed in it for five years and have shared love and suffering, you will not lose that. It remains the perspective from which you continue to live. We have returned several times, and each time it was like it was yesterday that we hang out together.



Raf Allaert on his time in Guatemala:

"Raf, we're not going to use the stencil printing machine for church songs, Serge said.”

Interview and text by Tessa Boeykens


In 1972, Raf Allaert left for Guatemala as a missionary from the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. There he became closely involved with the political movement of peasant communities and the subsequent repression of the government during the civil war. Together with the families of Serge Berten, Walter Voordeckers and Ward Capiau - all Belgian priests who were murdered during the civil war in Guatemala - he founded the solidarity association Guatebelga.


In 1964, I entered the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which was a guarantee for me to visit a developing country. From my Catholic background and the social awareness that was practiced in my family, I felt this to be my vocation. During '68, a historical turning point, I was working on my final thesis, inspired by the secular theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the increasingly growing liberation theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez. The roots of the liberation theology lie with the story of the Jewish people, who escaped from a life of slavery in Egypt and had to travel through the desert - a period of frustration, suffering and poverty - but they nevertheless kept hoping they would be salvaged from their misery. For me personally, liberation theology involves ‘updating’ the Bible and acknowledging the human dignity of those repudiated by the world. Jan Van de Veire, a friend and fellow missionary who already was in Guatemala at that time, encouraged me to put these ideas into practice.

So in 1972, I first left for Guatemala as a missionary, to work as a priest in the diocese Escuintla on the southern coast. Together with Jan, we worked in Christian base communities, where we tried to translate the Bible into the reality of Guatemalan agricultural and seasonal workers. We attempted doing this using Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Jan himself had put together a catechism and educational materials that we used to educate catechists. This gave agricultural workers - who were being exploited mercilessly - a growing insight into their position. That, in turn, gave rise to their political involvement. Some of these catechists later laid the foundations for the Committee for Farmers' Unity (CUC) on the southern coast, a trade union movement made up of agricultural workers. I personally saw liberation theology as a means to share the load of the people’s struggle. You assume a leading position in the Eucharist celebrations, but if manual labour is required in the villages, then you participate as well.

In 1976, I was called back to Leuven to guide theology students. I came face to face with a new generation of missionaries, who preferred not to stand in front of the altar anymore but instead decided to put their Christian inspiration to practical use. Serge Berten was one of them. Driven by his own social engagement, Serge left for Guatemala. I followed him to Puerto San José, where the former priest had fallen ill and left a vacant place. It was Serge who asked me for some money in ‘79 - when he knew I was going to return - to buy a stencil printing machine to use for the parish work. I was very naive back then. With money collected through Merelbeke's World Shop, I bought a Gestetner stencil printer in Guatemala City, and registered it with my own name... I hadn’t the foggiest that Serge was actually planning to print pamphlets for the Committee for Farmers' Unity!

I was homesick for the kind of Guatemala I had left in '76, but returned only to find a country at war. "Raf, we're not going to use that printer for church songs," Serge said. That basically became my introduction to the CUC. We put the stencil printer in an enclosed space and turned the music up whenever we were printing. These were pamphlets meant to recruit new CUC members, and a call to organising themselves and to make it clear that only the revolution could lead to change in Guatemala. Women wearing indigenous clothing - CUC members - entered the church and knelt before the altar, with a basket full of fruit gracefully balancing on their heads. Then they went through the sacristy to where the stencils were stored and hid them in their baskets. As such, thousands of pamphlets were distributed along the southern coast, right under the nose of the police force. The headquarters were located right in front of the church. From the church tower, we could see how prisoners were brutally kicked and beaten. We also could observe how these prisoners were dehumanised. It was as if all respect for their humanity was being destroyed.

From 1980 onwards, the situation escalated. CUC members and catechists were arrested and disappeared. At the end of ‘81, the stencil printing machine registered with my name fell into the hands of the army. A few days later, the military invaded our parish church. There was no turning back. I first went into hiding, before the Belgian ambassador personally put me on a plane to Belgium.
At that time, Serge was a very prominent figure within the CUC. He was rather tall among all these catechists and seasonal workers. It always seemed as if he was walking against the wind, like he was waving a bit. You couldn't help but look at him. A few days after my flight, they took him away, tortured and killed him.

The entire solidarity process accelerated in Belgium, and numerous local Guatemala Committees were set up. Between '82 and '86, there was an explosion of requests for information. I never actively looked for a job at that moment because I was constantly on the move for the Flemish Guatemala Committee, NCOS-11.11.11. and Broederlijk Delen. I suddenly had a gigantic forum and could raise money for the CUC. The CUC has always been the non-armed base of the EGP guerrilla movement, the Army of the Poor. In '86, the EGP asked me to visit the CPR, the secret Communities of Population in Resistance. In the jungle of Ixcán, on the border with Mexico, people were hiding from the army. With the backing of 11.11.11, I went to the CPR together with Annemie Demedts to boost its visibility and legitimacy both nationally and internationally afterwards. We made sure that these villages came to light, literally; from under the canopy of the jungle.

We still don't know where Serge's remains are buried. In 1989, I returned to Guatemala with Serge's parents, in search of the truth. Serge had no obituary image because his mother did not want that. His bones have not yet been found - it’s as if he’s still alive.... Together with the families of Serge, Walter Voordeckers and Ward Capiau - all Belgian priests who were murdered - we eventually founded Guatebelga to seek justice for what happened during the Guatemalan conflict. Hasta ver la justicia. As such, I also try to compensate for what I experience as guilt. People disappeared and were killed in the most horrible ways, all because we brought them ideology by practicing our liberation theology. People were sacrificed and have sacrificed themselves. Guatebelga is an attempt to make things right. To work towards a clean conscience. Because the past is not over yet.



Luis (Ludovic) Vandaele about Brazil:

“The procession broke the barricade: The police had to let us pass, because they themselves were religious.”

Interview by Allan Souza Queiroz and Hanne Cottyn;  text by Allan Souza Queiroz; translation Portuguese-English-Dutch by Allan Souza Queiroz and Eva Willems


Luis Vandaele lived and worked in Brazil for almost 20 years. As a priest, he worked with youth, workers and communities in the spirit of liberation theology and of pedagogue Paulo Freire.  He was confronted with repression during the dictatorship, and with worker exploitation on the countryside.


I was born in Mouscron, Belgium, into a catholic middle-class family. Thanks to their missionary vision, my parents were very open-minded and cosmopolite. I spoke Dutch and French at home from an early age, my aunts worked in India and my uncle in the Philippines. So I grew up in this missionary family, which of course influenced my decision to become a priest. During secondary school, a layman who had been to Latin America told me that the region needed priests with an open vision, who could make people aware and help them to progress, and who carried out an open evangelisation.

I arrived in Leuven in 1966 to study Theology and Missiological Sciences. At the Collegium Pro Americana Latina (COPAL) I met Brazilians for the first time. I was working on a dissertation about Brazilian Catholicism, studying everything from the most traditional to the most revolutionary experiences of it. That is when I decided to go work as a priest in Brazil. I was influenced by the committed church of Belgian José (Joseph) Comblin who practised liberation theology and was connected to the social movements. I became a priest in 1970 and returned to Mouscron to work in the local parish with the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (JOC). There, I learnt that the military dictatorship was persecuting the Brazilian JOC. They were being imprisoned and tortured. This opened my eyes.

Later in 1971 the authorities were trying to reduce the number of foreign students at the University of Leuven. We protested and some went on a hunger strike. We even spent a night in jail after having occupied the rectorate in solidarity with the foreign students.

1973 was the year of ‘Brazil Export’. The Lent campaigns of Broederlijk Delen and Entraide et Fraternité published a document written by Brazilian bishops. Their letter denounced the socio-economic conditions of people in north-eastern Brazil. It was not a letter about the Church; it was an evidence-based analysis of the Brazilian reality. The publication of this document had major consequences. Bishops, priests and laymen  were being prosecuted and slandered by the police. Jan Talpe’s book on the situation in Brazil was being circulated at the same time. In this wave of solidarity, Brazilian workers’ problems were being related to those of Belgian workers. Here in Europe, we were already very dependent on multinationals even then, the consequences of which we see to this day.

In 1974 I moved to Campina Grande, in northeastern Brazil. I was intellectually prepared for Brazil, but reality was completely different. The dictatorship was already somewhat more moderate. I got involved in grassroots community organization and supported the social movements, all the while respecting their own autonomy. These communities organised in Sociedades Amigas de Bairro or district committees and strove to improve their living conditions. If their house had been destroyed, they rebuilt it in a mutirão, a sort of community work. Initially, some priests were not very keen, but we encouraged the Christians to get involved. I also worked with youth movements, the Jovens do Meio Popular, similar to the JOC, and with mothers’ movements, the Clubes de Mães. My commitment was influenced by the method of the Latin American Episcopal Conference of Medellín: ver, julgar e agir - look, judge, and act. We also used theatre. The parish saved money to purchase building materials and encouraged people to make bricks and to build their own houses. We sold twenty percent of the bricks in order to buy more cement and sand. It was a small social action, but I believed that small projects were the best way to support people.

Another important period was the collective invasion of ‘Malvinas’, an unfinished social district of 3.000 small dwellings whose construction had stood still for more than 2 years. The police threw up a barricade to prevent people from participating in the occupation. It was the period of the Holy Week and padre Charles, a French priest who was my friend and predecessor, organised a procession with people of different districts. This procession broke the barricade: the police had to let us pass, because they themselves were religious, and that allowed us to let more and more people in to support the occupation. That day, the occupation of the three hundred houses was consolidated. The fight for livable housing was very important in Brazil at that time. The spirit of cooperation and solidarity nourished the relationship between different groups. When one group won a battle, that helped the other groups too.

Later I worked with the domestic staff organisation of Campina Grande and  their fight for social rights. They used campaign materials from domestic staff in Recife, and other mobilising materials came from Rio de Janeiro. A lot of educational materials and teaching practices for self-organisation were circulated among the groups and communities.

I personally never had any problems with the dictatorship, but I know that the land owners’ repression in the rural zones, where landless workers fought for their land rights, was very harsh. Bishops were accused of being anti-progress. It was a very aggressive, industrial agriculture. I worked more in an urban context, but my vision was also influenced by conflicts in village communities in rural areas.
During the 19 years I spent in Campina Grande, I experienced the shift from a centralised church to a decentralised church that appreciated the autonomy of the communities and dedicated laymen. At the same time, it stimulated them to get involved in social action - in the spirit of Paulo Freire’s method. 

The years in Brazil have marked me strongly. I have been allowed to participate in a socially engaged church and in the emergence of various popular movements. After 25 years these experiences help me to this day in my commitments where I live and in my solidarity with associations that work locally and globally.



Eric Van der Meirsch and Isabelle Vertriest about Nicaragua:

“After all those years in Nicaragua, we’ve become much more convinced of the importance of ecology.”

Interview by Hanne Cottyn and Allan Souza Queiroz, text by Hanne Cottyn


Eric van der Meirsch and Isabelle Vertriest were involved in the solidarity movement with Latin America from an early age on. Inspired by the Sandinista revolution, they went to Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990, where they worked together with the local peasant population on environmental issues.


The arrival of socialist Salvador Allende in Chile and the subsequent coup by Pinochet were decisive in our political and global awareness, as they were for many young people in the 1970s. We started wondering how we, as young people, could contribute to a change in the world, and about the counterforces that existed. Our commitment shifted from the Scouts to the North-South movement. We became active locally in Broederlijk Delen, 11.11.11 and worldshops, and attended trainings about global injustice.

It was the time of the historic anti-missile manifestations and the fight for’ depillarisation’ of Belgian society. Solidarity with Latin America was growing strongly in Belgium. We remember, for instance, how the Forest National concert venue sold out easily for a brilliant solidarity concert to celebrate ten years of Oxfam Worldshops in 1981. Solidarity initiatives for Chilean refugees sprang up in several cities. It was comparable to the situation of  Syrian refugees today. A Chilean band played at our wedding.

When we decided that we wanted to work together in Latin America, we started exploring Peru in 1981. At the time, the country was being afflicted by the rise of Sendero Luminoso. In Belgium, there was a lot of sympathy in leftist circles for that so-called peasant movement, but in Peru we were confronted with Sendero Luminoso’s dictatorial character. When the revolution in Nicaragua broke through in 1979, it was clear to us that the Sandinistas stood for something completely different. A controlled economy, but under a democratic regime. The first free elections followed in 1984. Eric left first, with a brigada de solidaridad along with some fifty other Belgian youth. He would supposedly be harvesting coffee beans, but in reality he dug out hiding places for displaced communities, to protect them from the attacks of the counter-revolutionaries. Shortly afterwards we started working for the Nicaraguan environmental organisation IRENA, with support from the Belgian NGO SocSol.

The first few years we worked in Jalapa, on the border with Honduras. We were, just like the many international volunteers, laughingly called sandalistas, because of our inseparable sandals. We often had to be very creative to try and explain complex environmental issues such as erosion in a comprehensible way  to the local peasants. We would, for instance, go from village to village to show documentaries, and to motivate people, we would always project a Mexican comedy afterwards. At a certain moment we had to leave northern Nicaragua because of the advancing Contras. In the following years, we mostly worked in the Granada region as government advisers. 

During those five years, we wrote down what happened almost daily. This is how we kept a solidarity group in Belgium informed. Since the 1960s, a lot of solidarity committees with Central American countries had emerged. Because of the counter-revolution, they all joined forces in the anti-intervention front - the umbrella organisation that lobbied politicians at the Belgian and European levels.
In 1989, on the tenth anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution, one of our best friends, who worked in communication, designed a poster together with one of his illustrators. It was a success, because the national solidarity committee with Nicaragua adopted the image, which was printed on rum glasses, among other things. Oxfam Worldshops sold the glasses and the accompanying rum from Flor de Caña - Nicaragua’s world famous rum - but bananas and coffee were also imported from Nicaragua.

Since our return in 1990, solidarity with Latin America has declined in Belgium. There is less political involvement, the economic need has diminished, and support from NGOs and the Belgian government is being decreased. There remains, however, great concern around the environment, especially concerning the Amazon. After all those years in Nicaragua, we are much more convinced of the importance of ecology. Forests are so fundamentally important to Latin America, but both the Nicaraguan government and several NGOs continue to assume the colonial paradigm that equates “development” with chopping down trees.

Ideologically, we look back differently on that period. For us, the Sandinista party was something socialist and pluralistic, with a very interesting vision of democracy. That has changed in the last fifteen years. Daniel Ortega and the people surrounding him are acting like dictators today, although you cannot compare them with Somoza. We find that very hard to accept. On the other hand, the social grassroots movements that always supported the revolution have become an indelible force that dares to oppose Ortega.

We continue to cherish a strong bond with Nicaragua. In our current jobs, we see every day how much we have learnt from those five years, for instance in terms of intercultural communication. On a deeper level, that period changed the way we live our lives, made us less materialistic. That period is made all the more special to us because of the fact that our two children were born there. 




Expo research & concept: ENCUENTRO

Archival materials: Amsab-ISG and KADOC-KU Leuven, personal archives of Raf Allaert, Alma De Walsche & Dirk Willems, Luis (Ludovic) Vandaele and Isabelle Vertriest & Eric Van der Meirsch

Photographic work: Tessa Boeykens, Allan Souza Queiroz and Eva Willems

Expo design: Patricia Rau

Slideshow: Mario Van Driessche

Coordination: ENCUENTRO and Paule Verbruggen

Website: Hans Blomme and Tessa Boeykens

With the support of Amsab-ISG, KADOC-KU Leuven, UGent and KU Leuven History Departments and UGent Sociology Department.