"When there's a community that stands up for itself..."

IssueJune 2006
Feature by Wilson David

The Peace Community of San Jose' de Apartado' consists of around 1,200 people - men, women, youths and above all children. We demand respect from the armed actors in the region of Uraba.

In our founding declaration, made on 23 March 1997, we laid down various important internal rules for the Community, such as: that nobody should bear arms, that nobody should give information to any side of the conflict, and that nobody should supply food to any side of the conflict. This remains our position.

We have had many difficult times and the armed groups have tried to displace us from our community. We have suffered many assassinations.

Dialogue and solidarity

San Jose' de Apartado' is a subregion of the municipality of Apartado'; we're about 12 km away from the urban centre along a badly-maintained road. In our sub-region, there are 32 hamlets - some of which are abandoned as people have been displaced.

In 2000 a commission composed of all the judicial institutions was set up to investigate these events. We delivered 130 statements to this commission in the search for justice. In 2002 we said we didn't want to make any more statements, as five of the 130 [statement-givers] had been murdered, and many others persecuted by the authorities.

In the nine years of the Community's existence, 170 members have been killed: 22 by the FARC guerrillas, and the rest - including women and children - by [rightwing] paramilitaries or government forces. Around all these events we have tried to have dialogue with the government and to communicate what we want to achieve.

Many international organisations, having learnt about the situation of displaced people, have been accompanying us, including Peace Brigades International since 1998. They have observed our efforts to have the government respect rulings of the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights in 1997 and 1998 that called on the government to provide peace and safety, not only for the peace community of San Jose' de Apartado', but also for people linked to the community.

No to impunity

In 2005 the government proposed installing a police post in our community, and I remember travelling to Bogota' with [community member] Luis Eduardo Guerra in January 2005 to inform the government that we do not want a police post inside the settlement but outside: inside it would make us a target for the guerrillas. We could not reach the government, and then there was the massacre of 21 February, in which Luis Eduardo Guerra and seven others were killed, after which president Uribe announced that the community - particularly leaders of the community - had serious links with the FARC.

The February 2005 massacre was very serious for the community. [The victims] were killed in a particularly brutal manner. An 18- month-old boy had his head cut off, a six-year-old girl her stomach ripped open, they were dismembered, and the corpses of the adults were cut into pieces. The immediate response of the president was to send police into the Community, so obliging us to move out of that settlement.

We constructed a new home for ourselves, which we call San Josecito (little San Jose'), 15-minutes' walk away. It was very hard for us to move away from our original community where we had established ourselves and our principles. We do not want those responsible for this massacre to enjoy impunity, and so we demand four [things] from the government:

  • that the president retract his statement accusing [the] Community and its leaders being collaborators with the [FARC] guerrillas;
  • an evaluation of the special investigative commission established in 2000 to see what it has achieved and to adopt measures of protection for those who had presented evidence to it, or who now wish to do so;
  • that the government respect the autonomy of the Community, to respect the lands where we live - including the hamlets;
  • that the government withdraw the public security forces from the territory of our original Community so that community members can return to their homes.


Responsibility to continue

[Since February 2005] there have been four more assassinations but the government has claimed they were members of the guerrillas.

Instead of these massacres causing despair in the Community, and making people want to step back, after nine years people still have a lot of energy. We are thinking of bringing two products to the market. The international presence has helped us find fair trade outlets through which to sell our bananas and cocoa.

We are also involved in a network of 15 communities - peace communities, communities of resistance, indigenous communities, Afro-Colombian communities. We cooperate and share experiences about health and education, including developing products that don't depend on the Colombian state - for instance we're investigating the way indigenous people use certain plants for medicinal purposes.

I am not discouraged. As one of 10 leaders of the Community, I think it is our responsibility to continue - especially our responsibility to the children, including many who are orphans. There are more than 100 children in the community, including 45 orphans.

Standing strong

In 1998 we constructed a monument to our assassinated members, built of painted stones with the names of those murdered. When we had to leave the Community last year, we had to leave the monument. This April, the police destroyed the monument in full view of members of the Community. That tells us that they do not want to have any communication with the Community, and that they don't want us to have our memory - they want to take everything away.

Since 24 April, with the help of friends and organisations such as PBI, I've had the opportunity to show a video Hasta la ultima piedra [Until the Last Stone] showing what has been happening at San Jose' de Apartado'. There are more than three million of us in Colombia who are displaced [and] there are more than four million hectares throughout Colombia under the control of paramilitary groups. Now the political strategy of the government towards the paramilitaries is that they will not have to face justice, and they will be allowed to stay in control of that land - our land - while we have to survive as best we can in hunger and poverty.

But when there's a community that stands up for itself and demands its rights, they accuse us of being terrorists. We are the only community in Uraba' standing against the government and the paramilitaries and [their need] to maintain their domination of the region is enough for them to attack us. When we denounce [a] military or paramilitary attack, they attack [us]. Just for the Community to say we don't want to be displaced is motive enough for the state to attack us. Also, for us to say that we don't want to be involved with the guerrillas is reason for them to attack us.

We are simply trying to achieve that, within the framework of Colombian law and the constitution, the government should allow us to live here and work.