by Lori Furrow
Within the last several months, recent attacks and allegations have been directed against the Urabá Communities of Peace located in San José de Apartadó (Antioquia), San Francisco de Asís (Riosucio, Chocó), and Turbo (Antioquia) and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that accompany them. The Communities of Peace, who have declared themselves neutral in the midst of the war, have been the targets of systematic aggression committed primarily by the regions' paramilitary troops.
These neutral communities are located within a fiercely contested region in northwest Colombia. It is a site of battles for control of territory, mainly between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia's largest guerrilla group; Peasant Self-Defense Groups of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), a regional paramilitary organization led by Carlos Castaño; and the Colombian army. This area is the potential site of a dry canal that would stretch from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast and would provide an alternative to the Panama Canal. It is also a strategic gateway for the entry of illegal arms and the shipping of illicit drugs.
On March 25, 1999, the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC), a national paramilitary organization with strong ties to the ACCU, in a public announcement threatened to begin selective kidnappings of NGO members and referred to them as "para-subversives." A letter published in El Colombiano on March 3, 1999, and signed by Urabá's businessmen, cattle ranchers, community action groups and other entities, contained allegations against the work of NGOs in the region. The letter stated that the organizations are influencing the communities to reject military authority and that the food earmarked for the communities is instead reaching "places infested by guerrillas."
On March 29, armed members of the AUC detained a group from a Mixed Verification Commission, intimidating them, threatening the leaders of the Peace Communities and the plans for displaced to return to their homeland. The commission included government officials, representatives of the displaced, and members of the Intercongregational Commission of Justice and Peace and Peace Brigades International (PBI).
On April 4, armed paramilitary troops, later confirmed as the Peasant Self-Defense Groups of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), entered the neutral zone of San José de Apartadó, killed three people, and injured three others. Again on April 7, a "self-defense" group entered the settlement of Villahermosa (Chocó), abducted ten men, killing three and later releasing the other seven. The armed group then went to the nearby hamlet of Arenal (Chocó) and murdered three people.
On April 14, a communiqué was sent out by Colombia Support Network (Wisconsin) stating that a significant number of active members of the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have violated the Peace Communities' neutrality and have intimidated their members. Paramilitary activity occurred again on May 4, when armed members of the "self-defense" xx(if they're ACCU, best to say that, then we need not have to deal with "self-defense," what it means, whether to use quotes, etc.) groups entered the Caño Seco settlement (Chocó), killed three people and abducted three others.
The municipio of San José de Apartadó is located twelve kilometers from Apartadó, situated close to the Abibe mountains, and the departmental border of Antioquia and Córdoba. San José de Apartadó consists of a town with 28 surrounding villages, with about 3,000 residents in all. The strategic area and mountainous terrain was a stronghold of the FARC guerrillas and became a desired turf for the paramilitary troops and a place of military attacks, making it a zone of conflict.
In September 1996, paramilitary troops attacked the town, killing leaders of the Communal Action Council and the Women's Committee. The army had occupied the town since August but, ironically, was not present the night of the massacre. As a result of this event, many of the residents of San José fled to nearby Apartadó or Medellín.
Early in 1997, a group of 40 paramilitaries entered the village; many were recognized as former EPL (Popular Liberation Army) guerrillas. After intimidating the residents, they forcibly took several persons, whose bodies were found the next day on the road. At this time, the paramilitary checkpoint from San José to Apartadó became permanent and was located frequently within a kilometer from a military base. A death list was compiled, identification was checked, and if your name appeared, or if you looked suspicious, you were murdered. Villagers also became the target of the paramilitary attacks and sought solace in the town of San José, which now housed only about 60 of its original residents.
On March 23, 1997, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó declared itself a Community of Peace after four of the town's cooperative members were killed by paramilitary troops. With the counsel of Monsignor Isaías Duarte Cancino, the Bishop of Apartadó, the Center for Popular Research and Education (CINEP), the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace, and Pax Christi, the Community declared themselves neutral to all warring parties, including the paramilitary troops, the armed forces, and the guerrillas.
Neutrality however, is viewed with suspicion by all groups. The warring factions' prevailing mentality is "if you are not with me, then you are against me." Therefore, gaining respect from the warring parties has been the greatest obstacle that the Community has faced.
The Community also strived to be self-sufficient by farming communally, producing their own food and selling cacao, avocados, and other crops. A community-elected council is responsible for issues such as health, education, work, sports, and culture.
Due to attacks in outlying areas, by the community's first anniversary in March 1998, members had grown from the original 600 to 1,100. The Community had suffered setbacks including killings, disappearances, threats, lack of food, crowded conditions, and illnesses. Seven were killed at the hands of the guerrillas and 41 by the paramilitary troops, in some cases with the direct involvement of members of the armed forces. The peasants' crops are in outlying areas, and they frequently are unable to attend to their crops when armed groups are by their farms. Residents of San José had been waiting with great expectancy to return to their land. Yet, the only village that would be viable to return at that point would be to nearby La Unión where about 50 families originated. It would be a starting point, and a learning process for other returns.
The return to La Unión on March 24 occurred a day after the Community's one-year anniversary, when a memorial service was held for the 48 residents of the San José region who have perished due to the political violence. The formerly displaced immediately began cleaning and repairing their homes and the village school, which were vandalized by warring parties. Much-needed assistance, pledged a year earlier to assist in the restoration of the damaged homes, provide food every 12 days for the first six months, and reimburse a productive project amounting to 82 million pesos, was not forthcoming.
Nevertheless, the Community again demonstrated its self-determination by scheduling a second planned return for April 6 to the hamlet of La Esperanza. It was postponed, however, due to the murders of Aníbal Jiménez, Daniel Piño, and Gabriel Graciano on April 4, 1999 by members of the ACCU. Jiménez was an active leader in the community and coordinated the cultural activities such as the children's folk dance group that performed for the community's celebrations, as well as the displaced community in Turbo. Jiménez stated that art "comforts the sadness of living in the middle of the war," and performing for other displaced communities demonstrates "solidarity". Piño also participated in the education of the community's youth. Graciano was 16 years old.
Plans for the return proceeded on June 9, when 35 members of the community returned to La Esperanza, with the remaining family members coming soon after. Two of the three recently-murdered community members were planning to return to the village. In a communiqué, the peace community announced the return despite previous obstacles, which marked the strength of both purpose and dignity of its members:
We extend ourselves with the Hope of continuing with the truth and transparency that our fallen brothers have delegated to us, and with the enormous responsibility of constructing a serious alternative in the midst of the conflict.
Lori Furrow volunteered through the Colombia Support Network and Intercongregational Commission of Justice and Peace as an international witness to the San José de Apartadó Community of Peace from January to June 1998.
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