IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Feature by Howard Clark

Dozens of Afro-Colombians fled from their home village, Villahermosa in the department of Choco;, in 1997, caught between guerrillas and paramilitaries. Some 6,000 displaced people from 49 villages, including Villahermosa, fled to Pavarondo;. After some months there, the women among them issued a statement:

“We women from Pavarandó want and need our voice to be known in the country and in the world because of what we have been living through for the last nine months and our proposals to transform, and to help transform this situation. Before we didn't live with violence, we were very poor but we lived from agriculture, fish, and domestic farm animals in 49 Antioquian and Atrato Chocoan communities. We had tools, medicines, and we bought what we needed.

When the war got worse, the economic blockade began, and they wouldn't let us go out even to buy food. They are interested in our land because of the canal (the inter-oceanic canal connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic) and because of the resources in our territory (minerals and natural resources). Then the bombings from the helicopters began, and we weren't even in conflict with anyone. We had to leave running with our children, leave everything behind and hide ourselves for several days in the mountain, in the jungle. The women they caught, they raped, mutilated and beat. They threatened the nursing mothers among us to make us get out of our houses and leave. We had to begin to disperse towards Mutata walking through the mountain for two weeks or more. Many lost contact with families. We never saw them again, nor knew anything more of them. Along the way there were births, and the community helped the elderly and those who got sick. There was a lot of solidarity; whatever one person found to eat, they shared. In Pavarandó, we lived with the indifference of the government; the children, the elderly and the nursing women have their food assured; the others have been without food for two weeks. Now, we are depending on the outside; we can't work, we have no money to buy the basics…”

With support from Justapaz and CINEP (the Centre for Investigation and Popular Education), in October 1997, displaced people in Pavarondo; declared themselves the Comunidad de Paz de San Francisco de Asis (Peace Community of St Francis of Assisi). In Pavarondó, the women from Villahermosa had missed the great variety of biodiversity of their village, and in particular the 48 distinct varieties of rice and 16 types of yellow corn grain that, together with banana and plantain, formed their staple diet. On their return to Villahermosa, many of the women - with support from Swiss Aid - dedicated themselves to agriculture, following their traditional system in which groups of 10 join together to work on each other's parcels of land. As well as growing a range of vegetables and fruits, they cultivate plants used in traditional medicine, and in general take a long term attitude towards maintaining the biodiversity of the zone and rescuing their culture. Rather than using chemicals against the birds that raid their crops, they prefer the whistles or calls handed down over the generations or to sling ripe lemons at them. But Villahermosa is far from a rural idyll. Paramilitaries have abducted, tortured and killed tens of members of the San Francisco Peace Community. In April 1999 a paramilitary force of between 300 and 600 men attacked the community, killing at least 12 people and abducting seven leaders. This provoked a national and international outcry that brought the release of the leaders, but nevertheless several hundred members of the Community fled to shelter in church buildings in Riosucio. Their support organisations condemned the paramilitary attacks, but also efforts by FARC guerrillas to infiltrate. When the Community members returned to their settlements, FARC began to threaten and kill those who they suspected of collaborating with the paramilitaries.