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"We will not stay quiet"

In 1996, as a result of a government counter-insurgency campaign combined with paramilitary activity, thousands of people were displaced from the Cacarica river basin. In responsethey formed CAVIDA - the Community of Self-Determination, Life and Dignity - and began to fight for their land and fortheir return. Community member Jerónimo Pérez reflects on CAVIDA's guiding principles and their refusal to take up arms in, or support, the conflict.

The population of Chocó in the north of Colombia is 70 per cent Afro-Colombian, 20 per cent indígena. The zone has attracted the interest of multinationals (because of its reserves of petrol and coal) and of logging companies. And the price of land doubled in one year following president Samper's announcement in 1996 of a new plan for an inter-oceanic link, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

It was in 1996 that the Colombian government launched a counter-insurgency campaign. Government forces, acting in unison with the paramilitaries of the ACCU (the Self Defence Forces of Córdoba and Urabá), tried to root out guerrilla forces operating from bases along the River Atrato and its tributaries. This began with an economic blockade against communities who were already among the poorest in Colombia. Various villages were then accused of housing guerrilla sympathisers and became the targets of threats and extra-judicial executions. After several months, the military and paramilitary moved in, bombing from the air and massacring on the ground, displacing many communities, especially in the municipality of Riosucio. The FARC reacted by targeting those in the civilian population they accused of being paramilitary or army collaborators.

The displaced from the Cacarica River Basin then decided to form the Comunidad de Autodeterminación, Vida y Dignidad de Cacarica (Community of Self-Determination, Life and Dignity - CAVIDA). Here Community member Jerónimo Pérez recounts their experience and explains their principles.

I am from the community of Cacari-ca, in the municipality of Riosucio, Chocó. In 1995, there was a major displacement in Urabá, some 25,000 people. We in Cacarica listened to the news, how people came at night burnt down houses, beating and dismembering people. We listened sympathetically but ourselves felt safe and calm.

Then in 1996 president Samper announced the possible construction of an inter-oceanic canal connecting the rivers Atrato and Truandó, which would pass through the Cacarica river basin. Immediately there started an economic blockade of the area around Turbo, a blockade that lasted five months. We could not understand how there could be a paramilitary blockade with the police, Marine Infantry and XVII brigade of the army in the area.

At about 6 am on 24 February 1997,army planes began bombing and helicopter gunships began firing down on seven hamlets. At the same time, paramilitary troops entered and told us all we had to leave because they needed the area totally free. People asked "why, we haven't given anything to the guerrillas?" In the hamlet of Vijao, they took a youth, Marino López, and cut off his head, his legs, his testicles, and then played footballwith his head in front of the whole village. The news quickly spread through the 23 hamlets in our zone that if we didn't leave, the same could happen to us.

Those who appealed to the army against the paramilitary order to leave were told: "We are not in charge here; the paramilitaries are." So we left, more than 3,000 of us. Most of us went to the municipality of Turbo, others to Pavarondó, some headed for Panama [where they were refused asylum and forcibly repatriated]. When we arrived in Turbo, we were like little jungle goats, knowing nothing of human rights, of international humanitarian law. We had depended on ourselves and had few dealings with the state - which merely sent us some teachers and a health worker.

Coming together

In Turbo we met a priest involved with Justapaz [the Catholic Church's Comisio'n Intercongregacional de Justicia y Paz] and he began to ask about what had happened to us. At this time, we were so suspicious of everybody that we said nothing. But at last one woman dared to tell him the truth. They offered us workshops abouthuman rights, and we began to understand that our rights had been violated and who had violated them.

The war would continue and we under-stood that the land of the 35,000 people who had been displaced in Urabá was now in the hands of those who financed the displacement. We went to Bogotá to meet other representatives of displaced groups and found that there were also interests at work behind their displacement, that land itself was an objective.

We began a consultation throughout all our communities, person to person, family to family, about what we wanted. Everybody said they wanted to return. We didn't want our children hungry, however what we wanted was not money to buy bread, but the land to grow our own food. We saw that if we stayed in Turbo, a municipality dominated by the paramilitaries, we would lose our young people, the girls to prostitution, the boys to the armed groups. And so we began to formulate five points to put to the government for a return with dignity.

The first point was that we wanted the collective title to our land. The government finally agreed this in October 1999, giving the 23 hamlets of Cacarica collective title to 103,024 hectares [over 1,000 km2].

The second was to resettle ourselves together, for mutual security, and that the government should pay for the construction of new homes as our houses had been burnt.

The third point was protection, not protection by the Army that had displaced us - we couldn't accept that. We wanted civilian judicial bodies to be present, to see what is happening in our community, perhaps to prevent and if not to at least investigate the violation of our rights by the security forces and the paramilitaries.

The fourth point was community development, because we had lost all ourgoods.

The fifth point was moral reparations. We asked for three monuments to the victims of those killed in the displacement, a book recording the memory of what we were, our suffering and what we want for the future, and a video. Also we wanted the imprisonment of all those involved in displacing us, including the intellectuals who have devised this strategy.

After we made our proposal, we found certain "godparents" - people who supported our right to be interlocutors with the government - and in April 1998 we went to Bogotá to put our points to president Samper. We said "you have violated our rights and have the responsibility to make reparation. Three days of bombing cannot happen without the approval of the highest authority in the land." Some of our points were accepted, but there has been no investigation of who was responsibile for our displacement. We presented photos and statements in evidence to the Procuradería General [responsible for investigating public officials] and were later told that they had lost them.

Identifying principles

A Joint Commission was set up to verify the agreement - this included international figures such as the representatives of the UN High Commission on Refugees, Christian Aid, the Norwegian Council and PBI, also people fromColombian NGOs, plus government representatives. The Colombian governmenthas a policy of displacing people, but not a policy for resolving the problem of displacement. Therefore all the proposals were coming from us, and we began tosee ourselves as constructing a model.

We based ourselves on clear principles. We will not participate in the war, neither directly nor indirectly. Beyond that we identified five principles:

Truth: We will tell the truth, externally and internally.

Liberty: We are free to make our own history, to choose our own form of coordination and our own economic model. When people ask us if we have tractors to cultivate our land, we say "no and we don't want them either, we want to work this earth and conserve it as we have traditionally, without chemicals".

Justice: We demand justice, that they condemn those who displaced us, and within the Community we created a group of matriarchs and patriarchs - the grandparents - who, together with the group of 26 Community coordinators, can sanction anybody who commits an injustice within the Community.

Solidarity: We can resist thanks to solidarity, nationally and internationally. Many people think we should have thrown in the towel in the face of so many problems and such threats - for instance, when people have tried to identify us with the guerrillas - and letters of support have given us great encouragement. There was also economic solidarity: we were looking to establish a communitarian life, working the banana plantations together and sharing the fruit, sowing yuca [the root vegetable cassava] but the paramilitaries seized that. The solidarity of people being physically presenthas helped us avoid great massacres: people have been assassinated, but in ones and twos, rather than by the score. The state does not want the reality of Colombia to be known internationally. There have been many forms of accompaniment, religious and lay, nuns and PBI, making us feel that we are not alone. And when there have been killings, there has been a network of people ready to write protest letters to the government.

Fraternity: Ninety per cent of our Community is Afro-Colombian, with some mestizos and some indígenas. We believe that the world is for everybody and we can live together in it as brothers. Also an attitude of fraternity towards nature. When we were taken from our land, we experienced misery and poverty, and so if we cared for nature before, now we would care even more.

These five principles form our identity as the Community of Self-Determination, Life and Dignity. We are poor people interms of money, but we have dignity and are rich with our river and jungle.

Returning

When we were in Turbo, to strengthen ourselves for our return we formed groups, such as a women's group and also a women's shop, and established a coordination. We suggested to the Colombian Armed Forces that they should make a tour of the river the day we wanted to return, and cut off access points to ourlands. They didn't do it. We informed the Defensoría del Pueblo [Ombudsperson] that there were paramilitaries just two and a half hours away from us, but they did nothing.

On 7 June 2000, the paramilitariesentered and took 21 of our residents who had been cultivating the fields. We informed everybody, from president Pastrana down. They simply said, "What a pity, but we don't have the means to enter this jungle zone." However, pressure at the international level had an effect: those detained heard paramilitaries warning each other not to harm them as there was such international interest, so thanks to international solidarity a massacre was avoided.

On 9 June, the military visited, including seven regional commanders. They told us that it was the AUC (United Self Defence Groups of Colombia) who had attacked us, but we knew that we had been displaced by an illegal military incursion involving the XVII brigade. They told us, "Look, we have come to protect you but also to bring you development." What they proposed was that, instead of working the land in common, each family should work its own plot and grow either coca or African palm.

If before we were against sowing coca, now we were even more so as we knew that it financed war. The governmental ways proposes that displaced campesinos should cultivate African palm - the palm oil now being exported from Colombia is fertilised with the blood of campesinos. We care for nature, and in particular want to stop the destruction of the forest by loggers or multi-national interests or settlements to grow coca - the forest is for the good of all.

The paramilitaries displace people but also seek to destroy community spirit, to break the organisations that seek equality, trade unions, human rights groups, campesino associations. They attack the social fabric, including the family itself. When you're displaced, you and your family are uprooted, your references removed. Now they try to stifle the economy of our Community through an economic blockade.

We sometimes talk of "neutrality" because we reject all the armed actors, but we are not neutral in the conflict, we are part of it because the war is waged against us. When we declare ourselves a Peace Community, this is not the peace of silence. We will not stay quiet, but will denouncethe military and the paramilitary.

CAVIDA email: cavida@colnodo.apc.org. The most reliable way to get mail to the peace communities is via Comisión Intercongregacional de Justicia y Paz, Carrera 15 No 37 - 10, Bogotá DC, Colombia (fax +57 1 338 15 11; email justypaz@andinet.com).