Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Religion

COLOMBIA: A Painful Pilgrimage

Diana Cariboni and Constanza Vieira*

BELLAVISTA, Colombia, Oct 30 2007 (IPS) - “Father Antún! Father Antún is back!” were the happy, surprised shouts heard by the IPS news team accompanying Catholic priest Antún Ramos as he returned to his former parish in the village of Bellavista in northwestern Colombia.

Nuevo Bellavista Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado

Nuevo Bellavista Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado

Local residents came up to hug him warmly or shake his hand with respect. Antún is seen as a hero in the area along the Atrato river, which runs through the jungles of the province of Chocó, where Bellavista is located in the district of Bojayá.

Chocó, on Colombia’s Pacific coast, also borders Panama and the Caribbean sea to the north.

But the 34-year-old Antún denies that he is any sort of hero.

He still cries when he remembers the 119 villagers killed and 98 wounded in his small church in the Afro-Colombian community of Bellavista.

“This story would take a whole month to tell,” says one of the survivors of the May 2, 2002 massacre that put the district of Bojayá and the village of Bellavista on the global map of war crimes.

That day, Antún led the evacuation of around 650 survivors through the crossfire between the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the far-right paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). The civilians in the motorboats were waving white flags and chanting: “Who are we? Civilians. What are we asking for? Respect for our lives.”

Shortly before they fled, the FARC, which was lobbing home-made mortars at paramilitary fighters who had set up camp behind the church, hit the building with a gas cylinder bomb.

Some 300 civilians had taken refuge in the church. Of the 119 people killed, 44 were children.

The stage for the tragedy began to be set in late April 2002. On Apr. 23, Freddy Rendón, alias “El Alemán” (“The German”), commander of the Elmer Cárdenas paramilitary bloc, showed up at the parish house in Bellavista. In his tense meeting with Antún, the paramilitary leader and the priest each made their position clear.

“I had heard a lot about him, because of all the atrocities he committed,” recalled the priest. The diocese of Quibdo, the provincial capital of Chocó, documented 700 murders in the area by the AUC between 1996 and 2000.

The priest was struck by the paramilitary leader’s imposing presence. “He’s around two metres tall and looks totally European, with green eyesà”

After boating along the river for 228 km, heading north from Quibdó, the IPS team reached Bellavista in the early afternoon of Sept. 14.

From the pier at the empty port, we followed a 90-metre cement walkway to the church where the massacre occurred, in a painful pilgrimage. As soon as he entered the door, the priest kneeled to pray, his hands clasped behind him.

The year of 2002 marked Father Antún deeply. Two months before the tragedy, his mother died of a heart attack on the street in Quibdó, in the middle of a shootout between the guerrillas and the army. Later, one of his brothers was kidnapped and held for 45 days by the National Liberation Army (ELN). The priest had to negotiate the ransom payment, which the family did not have.

On the morning of Sept. 15, 2007, Antún was sitting on the step which was once the altar, next to what is left of a plaster statue of Jesus, a mute witness to what happened.

He recounted the tragedy for IPS, while a four-year-old boy ran around with a cart in the empty, pewless church, imitating the noise of an engine: “Brrrruuuuummmm! Brrrrruuuuuumm!”

The little boy has either visited a larger town or has seen cars on TV. There are no roads in the Medio Atrato region. There is only the main route of transport — the wide, brown waters of the Atrato river, in this territory where the population is overwhelmingly black, and the poverty rate stands at around 80 percent.

But even when the river overflows its banks and floods all the way up to the floors of the houses on stilts, families trapped in their homes can be seen watching TV in the afternoon.

The boy’s playful noises seem to grow louder as Antún, describing the moment of the explosion, makes a lengthy pause.

“What are you remembering, Father?”

“The number of pregnant women; I think nine or 10 died. And the tiny unborn babies. They found them stuck to the walls” as a result of the shock wave of the explosion, he explained.

In his view, that is one of the reasons for the village’s failure to overcome the past and move on.

The local custom “when a child under 12 dies is to hold a kind of party, to dance with the dead child; it’s like a game” in which the child’s godfather is the first to pick up the little body and dance with it, to the rhythm of drums and chants.

The roots of the tradition go back to the days of slavery, when the slaves celebrated the “liberation” of the children from their bonds.

“See how beautiful he looks/They’re bringing him down/With bouquets of flowers/They are crowning him/” are the words of a traditional funeral song of the black community in the Chocó region.

But no funeral rites were possible for the children and unborn babies who died in the church. “People here believe that their children are not resting in peace. They might look happy to you, but that’s not the case,” said Antún.

Nor were they able to pray the novena for the adults who died, a tradition in which a soloist — an older woman — sings and the rest of the women respond in chorus.

“In the local black culture, the dead have a tremendous importance and influence. They end up determining the existence of the living,” sociologist Jimmy Viera explained to IPS in Bogotá.

But in Bellavista, Antún was not able to return until two days later, with five other men, to “pick up and try to put together the parts of the bodies,” and dig “a hole next to the river to throw them into.”

A May 20, 2002 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Colombia pointed out that the authorities had been notified several times prior to the disaster of the dangers faced by the civilian population as a result of the presence of members of paramilitary groups in the village.

The report also noted that the security forces were perfectly aware that the paramilitaries had set up camp in the middle of the village, which was within territory under FARC control. (The rebel group controls an estimated 40 percent of the national territory, mainly in rural, sparsely populated areas.)

Nevertheless, it took the army five days to show up after the massacre.

“Father, the community wants to clear up this doubt: why was so much time wasted before the security forces arrived (in 2002), and now they appear whenever the slightest little thing happens,” one local resident asked the priest.

But the question went unanswered.

Starting in September 2002, Antún began to accompany the displaced local residents as they returned to Bellavista. But a year later he began to have problems. After undergoing psychological treatment, he was sent by the Church to study social communication for three years in Italy.

“Returning here brings me great joy,” he said. The local community “gives me a strength that perhaps I don’t have.”


Nuevo (new) Bellavista was built by the government one kilometre south of the old one, as part of the reparations for the survivors of the massacre. President Álvaro Uribe inaugurated the new installations on Oct. 13.

After 30 days of flooding at the site of the massacre, some 1,200 Bellavista residents agreed in mid-September to move into 264 cement block houses built on an embankment.

They now live in neighbourhoods without a past, whose names come from the number of housing units built by each contractor: “Las 80” or “Las 50”, for example.

Nuevo Bellavista was designed as a model for the entire Atrato region, because the embankment, for which 750,000 cubic metres of earth were moved, is above flood level and located at a safe distance from the river.

The last group of families moved in three days before the visit by IPS. A few youngsters were enjoying the new gymnasium, a rarity in the Atrato region, but which was already strewn with trash.

Running water in the new village comes and goes. Some pipes have already been broken. The engineers say that’s “normal.” The electricity comes from a plant on the outskirts of the village, which provides power from 6:00 to 11:00 PM.

But “we are 80 percent better off than in Bellavista. We have amenities that we didn’t have before,” said Ariel Correa, a 37-year-old shopkeeper and father of four who recently moved into his family’s new house.

A sign in the window of another house reads: “it is hard to deceive people who stick together in unity.”

Nothing will be left in the old village except for the church. Any houses that aren’t dismantled by their former inhabitants will be razed to the ground by a government bulldozer. As a result, people are constantly coming and going between the old and new villages, salvaging boards, tiles and toilets, for example, that can be reused.

But no relocation assistance has been offered to 12 families displaced from the hamlet of Carrillo, two hours from Bellavista along a river deep in the jungle. They are still living in houses that will be torn down, in a ghost village to which they fled in terror in September 2003, escaping the fighting.

“We don’t have anything, as you can see. That’s how things are. They won’t let us build houses there (in Nuevo Bellavista). Talk about that, tell that,” one anguished elderly man told IPS.

It’s as if there was an attempt to rub out Bellavista, not only wipe it off the map but out of people’s memories, despite a sign hung up by the army several years ago, which blamed the tragedy squarely on the FARC, saying “Let us never forget!”

After the massacre, the army was investigated for “omission” by the military justice system and and the Procuraduría General de la Nación (inspector-general’s office). Only one officer was punished.

But the government paid the survivors up to 40,000 dollars per person in monetary damages.

“Everyone went crazy with the money, buying this, that and everything. And you know, it came from the dead, and now it’s all just disappearing,” said 60-year-old Bellavista amateur songwriter Domingo Valencia.

“There were people who spent eight days on a drinking spree — drinking up the money of the dead,” he said. “They went out and bought sound systems, some of which are already broken. And the outboard motors too. While the dead are forgotten and abandonedà”

“When people have little education and receive no advice or assistance, you can hardly expect them to invest their money well,” said Antún. Because with 40,000 dollars, “at least in these parts, you can really get back on your feet.”


In the coverage of civil war-torn Colombia, IPS had never seen a more neglected cemetery than the one in Bellavista, except for mass graves where paramilitary groups dump the bodies of their victims.

It is difficult to reach the cemetery, on a hill between the old and the new villages, to which the victims’ remains were eventually moved.

Sticking out from the overgrown vegetation are tattered white flags or rotting wooden grave markers with the numbers that were assigned to each body after the remains were identified by experts from the office of the public prosecutor. Only three have anything like a gravestone. A few names can be read next to some of the numbers.

“That neglect is part of the hapless condition in which these communities live. Their dead are simply abandoned, and their spirits in turn abandon the villages,” said Viera, the sociologist.

Valencia, who doesn’t know how to read, composes his songs in his mind and commits them to memory. He sings about painful, underlying truths, and says he lives in peace, because he respects the traditions and rituals surrounding death.

He said he won’t move with his wife to Nuevo Bellavista because living next to the river inspires him to write his songs.

“How it hurts/When I go to the cemetery/To see my fellow townspeople/Who died in the church//Abandoned/Like the dead with no one to mourn them//They grabbed the money/And never thought about them again//The wooden grave markers have collapsed/The flags have rotted away//Many ask me/Because I do still remember”.

To the question: “Is it better to forget these painful things, or to remember?” he responds: “It’s better to remember.”

When Valencia is requested to sing another song, Antún asks “But where are the drums?”

“There are no drums here,” said the singer. “Since you left, Father, all of that came to an end. The cockroaches and rats must have eaten them.”

“Turning their backs on the drums, their legacy from Africa, is tremendous,” said Viera. “In Bojayá there has been a terrible cultural rupture. These people have seen their culture destroyed. Who can fix that?”

(*This article is part of a series about the Millennium Development Goals in Chocó. The project that gave rise to this effort was the winner of the AVINA Investigative Journalism scholarship. The AVINA Foundation is not responsible for the ideas, opinions or other aspects of the content.)

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