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How do communities respond to long-term violence? For 54 of them it has been to establish "peace communities" which involve literally thousands of people. However, communities that refuse to bear arms in the conflict are unpopular with every side and frequently experience direct violence as a result.

San Jose de Apartado

The term “Peace Community” perhaps evokes an image of utopian pacifist experiments. In Colombia, however, the peace communities have been formed by displaced people and face continued pressure from every armed side. Renouncing the use of arms and collaboration with any armed force, they try to establish demilitarised spaces, neutral to the armed conflict.

Members of each peace community make five commitments:

  • to participate in community work efforts;
  • to say “No” to injustice and impunity;
  • not to participate directly or indirectly in the war;
  • not to carry weapons;
  • not to manipulate nor give information to any armed actor.

Now president Uribe has decreed that peace communities should have armed police present.

Challenging impunity

The first of the 54 communities in existence, San José de Apartadó, has replied to the president that they refuse involvement with any armed actor and have reiterated their desire for a civilian, unarmed presence. Their letter of 23 September 2002 to the president argues that “our painful experience has shown us that the armed actor whose barbarous acts have most damaged us during our five years of existence has been the National Army. Despite our demands to the presidents of the Republic, they have not wanted to shed light on the individual responsibility of members of the Army, nor dismiss or punish those guilty, nor compensate the victims, nor subject the XVII Brigade to rigorous investigations and purges.”

The letter recalls that the Community has suffered, massacres, assassinations, the burning of crops and houses, threats, tortures, slanders, all carried out with impunity. There has been “irrefutable” military involvement in the assassination of 100 members of the Community. Underlining its rejection of “whatever generates death”, the Community also reminds the president that it has suffered aggression from the FARC, especially on 6 October 1997 when FARC assassinated three Community members, including one of the Community Council.

Commenting on the ineffectiveness of the government Commission of Investigation into a massacre committed on 8 July 2000, the Community's letter now calls for the establishment of a Truth Commission, citing recommendations from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the previous Colombian experience of a Truth Commission set up in Macizo in 2000. The letter argues that no measure of security can be effective as long as the military and paramilitary forces in the area enjoy impunity.

San José survives

San José de Apartadó in the Abibe Mountain Range, Antioquia, is a municipality consisting of 32 hamlets. The Peace Community there was founded on 23 March (Palm Sunday) 1997. Four days later, 30 members of a paramilitary group entered the community leaving a warning “we are going to kill the toads [collaborators] of the guerrillas”, abducting and later executing one Community member. The next day soldiers entered the community, warning the members that “behind us, come those who cut people up into little pieces”.

In the immediate aftermath of San José's declaration as a peace community, hundreds of peasant farmers in the vicinity were displaced. Some fled the region altogether. About 650 decided to remain in the village of San José to struggle for respect for the Peace Community. In the five years since, their number has doubled, despite the murder of more than 100 members. Many of the corpses show signs of torture; some have been mutilated.

International support

The road to the San José community is controlled by the paramilitaries who repeatedly have cut off food supplies. It has been the scene of many abductions. In response Peace Brigades International operate a ferry service from the urban centre to the Community, with international volunteers travelling as a form of nonviolent protective accompaniment.

Many other bodies are involved in “accompanying” San José: from the USA, both the Colombia Support Network and the Fellowship of Reconciliation have placed volunteers there, as have Pax Christi from Germany. A number of bodies - both national and international, church and lay - visit the Community regularly.

While the Peace Communities oppose either the transit through or settling on their land of any armed actor, they would not oppose a civilian government presence in their own community or genuine government security forces protecting villagers in the surrounding areas from illegal armed groups. But this is not happening.

Other peace communities face similar dangers to San José and have a similar casualty rate. The price of refusing to cooperate with armed groups is high but, argue the peace communities, this is the only way “to construct an alternative in the middle of war”.

Peace Community San Jose (fax +57 4 828 2003 or 824 5090; email: cdpsanjose@hotmail.com ).