Attack Against Human Rights Defender Thwarted by PBI in Sabana de Torres, Santander

Following is the testimony of a Peace Brigades International volunteer regarding events that transpired last December 23 and 24. It is a testimony both to the potential and power of international accompaniment for human rights activists and to another family displaced from home by political violence. For information on PBI, including the July 1998 one-week training for the Colombia team to be held in Ontario, Canada, contact Kelly MacCready, 142 Rusholme Road, Toronto, ONTARIO Canada M6H 2Y7, (416) 588-0694,

We're already in the taxi ... two members of PBI and five members of the Calixto family all squashed in together. Mario Calixto had left earlier for Barrancabermeja in another taxi with two other members of PBI. The sun was setting, as we were leaving Sabana de Torres.

Amongst the uncontrolled tears that escaped Mireya when we were not watching. Amongst the pain of the sensation of having lost, of being beaten, displaced. Amongst the grandmother's joy in leaving a land so hot as Sabana de Torres. Amongst the anger against those men and their collaborators. Amongst the fear that had accompanied us during the last 24 hours and was still present. Amongst the silence that gave all of us space for rest and reflection. Amongst the stillness and the movement the images of the previous day returned to my mind.

On December 23, Hendrik and I, Paco, had gone to Sabana de Torres (one hour from Barrancabermeja) in the morning. As usual, we visited various organizations: women's groups, displaced peoples, the oil workers union, religious groups, in order to find out about the current situation and to hand out our publications. The office of the Human Rights Committee, closed again as a consequence of harassment, financial problems and threats in 1996 and 1997.

In the streets we could feel that "tense" calm that you normally feel in Sabana de Torres, vallenato played at half volume and people who turn away as you catch their eye, something that's not so common in this part of Colombia. These streets always reminded me of a cowboy movie.

We went to the home of Mario Humberto Calixto, President of the local Human Rights Committee since August 1993, but he wasn't there. We found his wife Mireya, the three children, grandmother, the woman who worked in the house and her child. The house was full of movement and noise. Mireya was the President of the Committee from 1989 until 1991 and both she and her husband are very active. They help the displaced people who leave or arrive in the municipality, people involved in domestic conflict, they gather and process complaints of violations of human rights and infringements of international humanitarian law, nationally and internationally, as well as educational work in this field (both are teachers).

Mireya told us that Mario had done to the mayor's office, where he was participating on an investigative commission to look into the failure to pay the salaries of the teachers in the municipality. Mario arrived to eat as always, with his mamadera de gallo (joking around). We spoke about the public relations plan that we were carrying out in light of the threats against him. In November Mario found out that a person of his trust had heard that supposed paramilitaries operating in the municipality were "going to kill [him], if not now, then in December". He spoke of how the request for precautionary measures, for his case was going to the Organization of American States and Mireya told us that on Sunday they had seen a very strange looking couple close to the house.

At 1:00 p.m. we met with the lieutenant in charge of the local army base (on an acting basis; the lieutenant of the Ricaurte battalion was on holiday). We presented the work of PBI, expressed our concern for the situation in the municipality and Mario's security because of the threats that he had received. We told him that we had increased our accompaniment of Mario, sometimes to include overnight stays, as well as of the communication concerning his case with various embassies, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and others overseas. Mario handed over the complaint regarding the threats against him, described the steps being taken, and gave him a report on the situation of the municipality: around 30 families displaced, five homicides and eight disappearances in the previous months, the majority perpetrated by supposed paramilitaries.

We walked to the mayor's office with Mario and returned by ourselves to his house to rest. A little before 6 p.m. Hendrik went to look for Mario. They met in the road. When they arrived back at the house we all greeted each other.

Fifteen minutes after reaching the house I heard something that made me jump: the voice of Mario, not very loud but almost trembling, he seemed very frightened, saying "Mireya, Mireya!!!". I ran out and there were two armed men, one pointing his gun at Mario and the other at Hendrik. Mireya, the children and I stood between them. I must've said (later they told me because I couldn't remember) something like "but, what's happening here?" extending my arms. Mireya and the children shouted "don't kill him, don't kill him!", meanwhile Mario took the opportunity to leave via the patio. They wanted to force Hendrik into a room at gunpoint. I don't know how, but without thinking I said "I am Spanish and he is Belgian, we are internationals of Peace Brigades International" with the idea that it might calm them down. Hendrik also told them that we were internationals, and that they should calm down. The men were very nervous and asked for Mario very aggressively saying that they wanted to speak with him. Mireya said "Don't give me that shit, you don't speak with guns". She was very distressed and the children were shouting and crying. With the gun in front of us I insisted that they should please go. The grandmother, who has great difficulty in walking, had managed to reach the door in order to shout at them "go or I'll thump you one" (she thought they were thieves). I don't know how we kept so calm, neither did I have time to feel scared.

Everything happened so quickly that I didn't feel anything, there was only time to act. But with the pleas for them to go they headed for the door, one with his face covered with a black cloth, until eventually they left via the street below. A little later they got on a motorbike and left.

We decided to telephone. Hendrik quickly rang the two PBI sub-teams in Bogota and Barranca so that they could contact the whole organization. Immediately they spoke with our offices in London, Canada and other places in Europe, in order activate our contacts there. Within half an hour we were already ringing the home of a delegate of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, embassies, and other organizations. In a very short time we were already taking steps for our immediate security.

Mireya and I went to speak quickly with the neighbors, who looked for a safe place for Mario. On returning to the house we saw men who kept watch in front of a tree-lined piece of land. We were scared again. We decided to call the police to ask them to keep watch. Hendrik went later to where Mario was. The police took a look around but found nothing. People started to arrive at the house, neighbors and other members of the Committee. At 10:20 p.m. the army lieutenant came by. They had called him from the Spanish Embassy and from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and he said that they would take a look. We went with the children to the house where Mario was. We tried to calm the children down and to be very careful and discrete, but we all kept our fear to ourselves.

Hendrik spent the night with Mario and I with the rest of the family and we tried to analyze what had happened. Mireya said that one of the armed men was one of those that had been keeping watch opposite the house the previous Sunday and on Monday (according to neighbors). We had many doubts about sleeping in the house, but the grandmother had already fallen asleep and it was a little difficult to move her at that time of night. It was clear that she lived in a different world. None of us could rest much that night. We closed the doors and windows. Each time we thought we heard something, we jumped out of bed to look out the window. The night passed with apparent quiet.

The following morning Mario came. These were very beautiful moments, to see the whole family together after such a fright. That morning many decisions had to be made quickly, with many doubts about going, where, with whom, how, with what. Many telephone calls, from the Presidential Adviser on Human Rights, the Director of the Administrative Department of Security, and from colleagues from PBI, to plan the departure. And there were a number of visits from members of the Committee who said they had seen other strangers close to their homes.

The army came to the house several times. Some neighbors were very supportive but other wouldn't even come close. They were paralyzed by their fear. There were moments when a minute's rest was found in which the tears started to well up with thousands of mixed emotions. At that moment there would be another telephone call for one of us or a visitor calling at the door and this would make us tense once again.

At the last visit of Lieutenant Ramirez, Mireya expressed her indignation that acts such as these could occur. She asked him if it could be that they should have to suffer this kind of consequence because Mario was doing humanitarian swork. It hurt to see all this anger in her face.

Once they had dealt with some financial matters and lodged their complaint at the mayor's office, they packed their bags. We organized the journey in two taxis. Josu and Britta, other team members from PBI, travelled to Sabana de Torres so that two PBI volunteers could go in each taxi. The journey could have had complications. We put the things in the cars. There, at the door of the house that had been so noisy the day before, stood the neighbors, the woman that worked in the house, other members of the Committee and some shining eyes full of tears. "Don't abandon us", said one member of the Committee.

And at last in the taxi, we were leaving, the sun was setting, colors of ochre, red and orange caressed us. And up came tears that had been held in, and so too the fear and the pain and the anger and the joy of the grandmother at leaving Sabana de Torres. Mireya said that for her, worst of all was to leave the Committee, that if the Committee didn't continue, who was going to listen to the people when they needed to denounce the abuses in the town. From there a new chapter of the story began. Those who had been working to help and support the victims of displacement caused by violence had now become one more family to add to the one million displaced people in the country.