The situation of violence in the peace communities in Uraba is causing mounting concern. Recent events have raised fears over the future of this initiative by the displaced population to maintain their neutrality in the face of the armed actors and their efforts to return to their lands and resume their lives.
Over a four-day period, at least six peasants were murdered, two were wounded and another 15 disappeared after incursions by paramilitary forces in two peace communities. The attacks took place in the peace community of San Jose, in the municipality of Apartado (Antioquia), and in the hamlets of Villahermosa and Arenal in the peace community of "San Francisco de Asis", located in the municipality of Riosucio (Choco).
On April 4, in an unprecedented action, a group of armed men, apparently paramilitaries, entered the fenced-off area that demarcates the neutral territory of San Jose (municipality of Apartado) in which no armed actors are allowed. The armed men arrived at the peace community at around 11.15 at night, accompanied by two villagers who were seized on the road that leads from San Jose to Apartado. The intruders went to a kiosk where a number of villagers were watching television and after warning that they had come to "kill guerrillas", they ordered the villagers to gather in the main square. The paramilitaries surrounded the square and went to the home of community leader Anibal Jimenez, a member of the village council and coordinator of the human rights group. Jimenez was forced out of his house at gunpoint and was shot several times.
The paramilitaries then returned to the main square and began shooting indiscriminately at everyone gathered there. They killed 16 year-old Gabriel Graciano and slit his throat. Another villager, Daniel Pino, with whom the paramilitaries had arrived, received a machete wound in his stomach. Before leaving, the paramilitaries injured three other people -- two men who tried to escape from the scene of the attack and a woman who was wounded when a grenade exploded in her home.
Community members immediately condemned the attack and defended their decision to remain neutral in the armed conflict. They also recalled that since they declared their neutrality in March of 1997, armed groups have murdered 52 civilians. They described the latest incident as a sign of disrespect for "the decisions of organized communities".
Three days later, in a letter to the daily newspaper El Tiempo, paramilitaries of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), claimed responsibility for the violent incursion into the peace community of San Jose, and claimed that it was "openly run by the guerrillas". The letter warned of further attacks against peace communities located on the banks of the river Atrato and its tributaries in the north of the department of Choco. "We will attack all settlements of those who were "marchistas" (an apparent reference to people displaced by violence) and we will capture all the guerrillas we find camouflaged within them," warned the AUC.
International NGOs with a presence in the Uraba region denounced an incursion by armed men in the settlement of Villahermosa on the morning of April 7. This community is located about five hours ride away from the town of Riosucio and two hours by mule from the River Truando. The paramilitaries, with list in hand, abducted twelve community leaders, including two health workers, and caused irreparable damage to local production projects, killing a number of hens. The armed men seized several villagers and cut their hair with machetes and then went to the hamlet of Arenal (near Villahermosa) where they murdered an adult and a three year-old child and wounded another child.
Villahermosa is one of ten settlements to which some 5,000 displaced persons have returned after spending more than a year (from February 1997 to the first months of 1998) in the district of Pavarando (in the municipality of Mutata, Antioquia). In October of 1997, these peasants established the "San Francisco de Asis" Peace Community, which defines itself as part of a group of "communities in resistance, for non-violence, tired of conflict and determined not to participate any longer in the enterprise of war". From this position, they have demanded respect for their "autonomy, culture and identity".
The situation in Uraba has become even more critical in the wake of false accusations made against international NGOs that have been working in the region for the past two years. These organizations have provided humanitarian assistance to thousands of people who have been displaced by violence and have supported the process to create peace communities, an initiative promoted by the Catholic church to facilitate the return and social and economic reintegration of displaced peasants in the region.
However, in a letter sent to President Andres Pastrana on March 5, a group of local businessmen, cattle ranchers, community action committees and army members, accuse the international NGOs of pressuring communities to reject the military authorities. They object to the notion of the army being considered as one of the "actors in the armed conflict" and argue, incorrectly, that international food aid and medicines never reach the local communities, but instead find their way to "places infested by guerrillas".
In the letter, these groups also express their opposition to the initiative by hundreds of indigenous people, black people and peasants in the Uraba region to form peace communities. "We ask ourselves, ' is this a strategic weapon that will lead us not to denounce the guerrillas? Is this a tactic to prevent the people from having contact with their legal army? Why is it that now, when the guerrillas have lost ground in Uraba, that so many international organizations have appeared talking about neutrality and yet they never appeared before, precisely when the guerrillas were the ones bringing bloodshed and desolation to our fields and villages?" The letter adds that peace communities offer "an ideal place for hundreds criminals&ldots; where possible action by the authorities cannot reach them."
For their part, the NGOs insist that their mission is entirely humanitarian and falls within "the parameters of universality and neutrality, understood as non-interference in the internal affairs of the country."
According to an NGO representative quoted in the daily newspaper El Colombiano, the accusations made against the NGOs are an attempt to pressure displaced people and the civilian population in general to "align themselves with an armed actor (the army) and feed the idea that neutrality and the work of some institutions is 'para-subversive'.