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COLOMBIA: Displaced Families Return, to Create ‘Peace Community’

Constanza Vieira

PUERTO ESPERANZA, Colombia, Mar 28 2006 (IPS) - With a mixture of fear, joy and sorrow and a deep desire to once again work the land, 17 rural families displaced by paramilitary violence in civil war-torn Colombia have returned to the lion’s den to create a new “peace community”.

The members of the Civilian Community for Life and Peace (CIVIPAZ) were forced off their fertile small farms where they once grew coffee, cacao, corn and beans, and fled to the slums surrounding the provincial capital, 65 km away.

But this month they came back to this region along the upper stretch of the Ariari River in central Colombia, an area that is now under the control of the extreme-right paramilitaries.

CIVIPAZ was inaugurated Mar. 18 on an eight-hectare plot of land purchased with funds donated by a group of Spanish citizens. The new “peace community” is located half a kilometre from the village of Puerto Esperanza.

For the past four months, the members of CIVIPAZ have made regular trips back in groups to prepare the land for planting and to build simple houses for each family.

This is the fourth group of rural families in Colombia that has dared to declare that none of the parties to the four-decade civil war are welcome in their neutral territory.

In August 2004, after human rights activists and community leaders in the village were tortured and killed, the families were afforded precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an Organisation of American States (OAS) body.

Since then, every trip they make to Puerto Esperanza is officially reported to the office of the vice president, the ministries of Foreign Relations and the Interior and Justice, and the offices of the public prosecutor, the ombudsman and the attorney-general.

Esperanza (which means “hope” in Spanish) is not only the name of the village, but also the best description of what has driven these courageous campesinos to return to their land.

The 17 families include 39 children. Ten more families will arrive in April. Many of them have been living for the past few years in earth-floored, plastic-covered shacks without sanitation in Villa Nora, a shantytown on a hill on the outskirts of Villavicencio, the capital of the southern province of Meta.

The participants in CIVIPAZ form part of the roughly 700 families who were gradually forced by paramilitary terror tactics to leave 18 rural villages in the municipality of El Castillo, in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, since January 2002.

One by one, 129 families had already returned to Puerto Esperanza and other villages in the region of the Upper Ariari River, which has a warm climate and abundant water – and where the California-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. began to explore for oil from April to December 2005.

Two years ago, the families began to discuss the possibility of returning to their land.

Finally, on Mar. 18, they hired three buses and returned to this “red zone”, as the armed forces and paramilitaries refer to those areas where every man, women and child living there is suspected of collaborating with the guerrillas.

The region is one of the birthplaces of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist rural rebel group that emerged in 1964 out of a climate of repression in which state-sponsored violence targeted all opposition, particularly Liberals and communists. FARC controls an estimated 40 percent of the national territory, mainly in rural, sparsely populated areas.

According to the Colombian Bishops’ Conference, some three million Colombians were forced to flee their homes between 1995 and 2005, abandoning a total 4.8 million hectares of land. Only Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have more internally displaced persons than this South American country of 44 million.

To reach Puerto Esperanza it is necessary to drive through Medellín del Ariari, a town under paramilitary control.

Meanwhile, people in this region are intensely wary of the army. None of the campesino men, women or children who spoke to IPS hesitated to say that in this area, the army’s 21 Vargas Battalion has worked in collusion with the Centauros Bloc of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), the paramilitary umbrella organisation.

Most of the groups making up the AUC, including the Centauros Bloc, have formally demobilised after controversial negotiations with the right-wing government of Álvaro Uribe.

According to one of the elderly campesinos who helped found the village of Puerto Esperanza, “today’s war is the same war that was going on 50 years ago. Only the weapons have become more sophisticated.”

“The groups that are called paramilitaries today were then called ‘los limpios’, who went after the ‘Gaitanistas’ (Liberals), with the government’s protection,” said the elderly farmer.

In the 1950s, “the leaders of the Communist Party were persecuted the same way the mafia is hunted down today. That’s how the war has been waged, and any activist or community leader who speaks out, any campesino who speaks out, they say he’s a communist, because they say that anyone who studies, argues or learns the laws is a communist,” he added.

Here in El Castillo, men and women were cut up alive with chainsaws by the paramilitaries.

The local residents mourn men and women community leaders who were dragged out of their homes and tortured and shot or stabbed to death under the cover of night, or ambushed along the roads by paramilitary groups organised by large landowners to fight the guerrillas or suspected collaborators.

The CIVIPAZ farm is fenced in. At the entrance a sign reads “Humanitarian Zone, Exclusively Civilian Population – CIVIPAZ – Private Property”. The paramilitaries control the surrounding area, say the locals, who explain that the guerrillas are much farther up in the mountains.

During the formal inauguration of CIVIPAZ, a community leader explained the meaning of another sign. “Truth: We need to know the truth, because the state has committed so many crimes against us. Justice: We will continue demanding from the government the reparations that we need so badly, for our 137 dead and ‘disappeared’,” he added.

At 14:00 local time, the farm gate was opened, and the families, who were welcomed by some 200 people from neighbouring villages, entered amidst applause, chanting “The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated”.

At the foot of an old saman tree that they families decided to name “the tree of life”, they used stones to form a circle with a cross. Each stone, painted black, bears the name of one of the communities or organisations that have supported their return to their land, or the names of men and women mourned by the people of Puerto Esperanza.

La Macarena village donated a package of corn as well as corn and yucca seeds.

When they harvest their first crop, the families of CIVIPAZ will be accompanied for protection by Claretian missionaries and members of the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace (Justicia y Paz), who are providing humanitarian aid.

The houses that the community members have built on their trips back to the area do not differ greatly, for now, from their shacks in the slums of Villa Nora. “But at least these ones have cement floors,” said one of the women, looking calm after spending her first night back in the countryside. Besides, “this is our place,” she told IPS.

The boarding school in Puerto Esperanza, once the most handsome school in the region, is today a monument to the destruction caused by war. The health post, which was once fully equipped – “even for surgery,” according to a local campesino – has been dismantled.

Despite the myriad needs, the families who have returned will not ask the state to guarantee their right to education or health, “Because we have come here calling for reparations – not only in Puerto Esperanza, but in the entire region,” a community leader told IPS.

But just as the state should repair the health post and the school, it should also provide reparations for the victims, and it should repair “the rest of the schools, here and farther into the mountains – the schools in La Cima, La Esperanza, Los Alpes, La Cumbre, El Retiro, La Floresta, La Esmeralda, Miravalle, Caño Lindo, 20 de Julio – because damages were caused in all of these places,” he added.

The open-sided tin-roofed building with a sandy floor that will serve as a school within the grounds of CIVIPAZ will soon be finished. But no agreement has yet been reached with any humanitarian organisation to meet the community’s healthcare needs.

Although they refuse to be guarded by the army, the campesinos have sought the close presence of delegates of government bodies like the offices of the public prosecutor and the ombudsman, whose representatives accompanied them on their return to Puerto Esperanza.

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