More than 366 deaths suffered after this community decided to reject the armed conflict.
By Miguel Angel Espinosa Borrero
El Tiempo, Bogotá, Colombia
March 23, 2017
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The recollection is an unpleasant one. The horror of that day comes back to the memories of the campesinos like a photograph of the devastating impact of the war. On February 24, 2005, the community of San José de Apartadó had to look all over the town of La Resbalosa for the dismembered body parts of eight people, including an 18-month-old toddler.
Three days earlier, the community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra Guerra, his partner, Beyanira Areiza, his 11-year-old son Deyner Andrés, Alejandro Pérez, Alfonso Bolívar Tuberquia Graciano, his wife Sandra Milena Muñoz Pozo, and their children, Natalia, five years old, and Santiago, 18 months old, had been murdered. (The baby had been bludgeoned to death.)
Even though testimony offered to prosecutors pointed to members of the 5th Front of the Farc, the campesinos of San José attributed the crime to Colombian Army units and to the paramilitaries.
This episode is just one of the more than 300 that the campesinos of this District of Apartadó, in Urabá, Antioquia Province, have had to report since they decided to become the Neutral Campesino Community of Peace, on March 23, 1997, 20 years ago today.
The idea came up after 1,200 deaths and more than 10,000 displacements were counted in the area between 1995 and 1997, because of attacks by criminal gangs and guerrillas. The campesinos found themselves at a crossroads: the 5th Front of the Farc operated in the area as well as the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces and there were complaints of abuses by the authorities, one of the principal inducements for the community to reject the aid of the government.
(Read also: “The Colombian Army took part in the massacre in San José de Apartadó”)
“It was hard to give somebody a glass of water because later on the other side would come and either say that we were guerrillas or that we were paramilitaries. We got tired of that and we decided to become a community of resistance in the midst of the war”, recalls Luis Miguel Serpa, a 35-year-old campesino who is a member of the community’s council.
Today, two decades after having constituted the collective, the commemoration is not over. In 2016 they counted 366 killings of campesinos in the area, a not very encouraging figure in a community that is just trying to live in peace in a territory that is considered strategic—it lies some 12 kilometers from the city of Apartadó—because it joins the provinces of Antioquia and Córdoba.
(Read: “The Farc beg pardon for the massacre in La Chinita, in Apartadó”)
An atmosphere of peace
They had already declared themselves to be a community of peace, but later the inhabitants—some 680 of the nearly 3,000 who live in its 32 towns—moved to a place five minutes from the urban part of San José. That day, in the midst of white flags and songs of peace, the campesinos decided to move to this location, insisting that they would not return to the town as long as the Police and the Army remained there.
Following their original idea to the letter, this community does not allow the entrance of the authorities for one reason: “A person carrying a weapon is not welcome to this place.”
“It is the bright light of the Prophet’s teaching—our God’s teaching—that lights the way of those who love peace; we are all of us, campesinos, working to strengthen the community of peace . . .”
Those are the words of the song that they were singing until they had finished putting up the fence that has kept them apart from that war that had robbed them of so many lives.
The little community surrounded its land with a barbed wire fence and flags with mottos alluding to their cause, and imposed its own rules. Because of that, in their meetings—besides making decisions about their future—they also resolve cases of domestic violence or disputes among neighbors. Such infractions of the internal rules are punished with financial fines or work assignments.
All in all, there are 55 work groups, to make sure that education, health care, and farm work are carried out. They raise corn, rice, cacao, yucca and plantain.
“We made this change because we were haunted by so many attacks –Arley Tuberquia, one of the campesinos in the area is speaking–; not just from the Farc and the paramilitaries, but also by the government, with the soldiers and the Police. We don’t agree with the violence, and that’s why we decided that we weren’t going to allow it any more.”
It has cost them. But they feel more determined every time. Not many try to come into the area, and they try to respect the fact that the community doesn’t want to know anything more about the war, in spite of the threats that continue. Criminal gangs and the AGC have become stronger since the 5th Front left the area after the peace agreements signed by the Farc and the government.
But their resistance does not turn back. The community has succeeded in sustaining itself and after two decades of losing their loved ones they are still refusing to have anything to do with any armed actor in the conflict.
They have put up a small cemetery in the area. There you can see photos of the people who were murdered. The community decided to create a kind of tribute: white stones and some that are painted in different colors bear the names of the victims, the dead who are mourned by the whole community.
“Let us remember, brothers, those that we have buried, and let us pay tribute to them with affection and with much love. Let’s go, campesinos, all of us . . .”
Natalia, Omar de Jesús, Antonio . . . are names that mark the path to a small altar located in the center of the cemetery.
The rocks surround a series of photographs: Darío, Fernando, Arturo . . . a path full of memories. All of them, murdered by members of the armed conflict.
“With the peace process, nothing has changed at all. We are sure of that. Now everybody is talking about the Farc and nobody remembers that the paramilitaries have never left. They have more and more power, and we can’t see any opportunity for us even to breathe,” Serpa points out.
Three nongovernmental organizations accompany them. They come from Holland and Germany. They are the only ones; the community is very strict about visits from other people.
“We are a community that rejects the war, but, in 2005, then-President Uribe said that there were Farc collaborators inside our community. That’s why we prefer to be careful about any people who enter.”
The week was exciting. Luis Miguel points out that everybody worked on the decorations for the celebration. There were white flags, some paintings on the houses, and you could go to the cemetery to appreciate the decorations on the graves. All of these were activities on the agenda of this united community.
There was some music. The people got together to say a little prayer and begin the activities: short speeches, music and a big celebration of life and of peace.
Julio Duque, a priest who accompanies them, assures that it is important to maintain the rule that prohibits the sale of food or giving of information to criminal bands or to government authorities.
“We have to celebrate life, always. We cannot permit armed persons to invade this peaceful space that has sustained these campesinos so steadfastly. This is a community at peace and it does not want to know about the conflict that surrounds it,” he explains.
Always with the truth
“Only God provides justice. We are going to speak the truth when that is necessary. We believe in peace because where there is peace life can flourish.” The words spoken by Brígida Gonzales end with a big laugh.
Perhaps she is proud of surviving to her 70 years, years that will still have to take place in the midst of the war. Nevertheless, she smiles and thanks God that she is able to carry on, together with her community. “We can gather some 550 right now – she recalls –. We signed a charter and decided to become a Peace Community. We had to learn how and provide a lesson to the world that: yes, you can talk of peace in the midst of war.”
During all of these years, the death of all of her brothers has hurt. But Brígida cannot forget her little Elisenia Vargas, the youngest of her four children, a girl of 15 years old when she was murdered by members of the paramilitaries.
“That was on December 26, 2005, she remembers, very sadly. They killed her, I’ve been told, because she had gone to a party with some guerrillas. But I still feel the hurt, the death of a young girl, my little girl, and always they give the same excuse: if they kill some people, because they were with the other people, and on and on…”
Beginning when she was very little, Brígida learned to paint. She has painted more than 600 paintings that portray the hope, the war, her daughter, and thanks to the support of some NGO’s, she has been able to sell some of them.
“I don’t want to get famous with my paintings. I just want people to know what this place is like and to realize the importance of our cause.”
Before the day of celebration is over, the community prepares to issue its most recent communication to public opinion. It is one that will last 20 more years, to be exact, or until the armed conflict ceases to be that shadow that threatens them:
“We have maintained our firm and unabated resistance to such criminal strategies and activities throughout these 20 years. We have seen the lives of 300 brothers and sisters of our community and our neighbors cut short. We have been accompanied and we continue to be accompanied by people and communities from different countries of the world, people and communities that are ruled by moral principles incompatible with the iniquity of our government. We will always be grateful to them.”
Their positive form of resistance has frequently been connected to ideas considered leftist. Some sectors have not even hesitated to accuse them of being members of the FARC. That kind of statement is rejected emphatically by this community that is only trying to make the bullets from the conflict to stop thundering in their ears.
The community will keep on resisting.