Apologies to all for not having updated more recently, I have been busy, if that is any consolation to you. First I was in Quibdo for the San Pacho fesitval, and then on a large pilgrimage with the Comunidad de Paz. I have also collected a veritable zooful of tapeworms, so there’s that too.
In leui of actually producing a new update, which I haven’t quite done yet, you are offered two articles on the aforementioned pilgrimage. The first is by Chris Courtheyn, member of FOR’s International Committee, who writes on the building of peace through joint action, and the second is by El Espectador journalist Camilo Segura Álvarez (incidentally, that article comes with a great photo of me at work, looking all serious and walking next to the indominable Padre Giraldo). I editted the first and the second is my translation enjoy, and my view point will be forth coming:
Walking the Word, by Chris Courtheyn
“Caminando la palabra,” or “walking the word,” is how Siriaco and Diego*, participants from indigenous Cauca and Guajira communities, described what we had done on our recently completed Peace And Solidarity Pilgrimage to Rodoxalí, in this war-torn northwestern Urabá region of Colombia.
Organized by the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, 150 people converged upon the village of Rodoxalí to confirm and confront the presence of death-squad paramilitary groups. The pilgrimage was organized in response to reports that four people had been killed, and paramilitaries had kidnapped and disappeared a young man and demanded that the area’s campesinos (small-scale farmers) give them information and supplies. An estimated 28 families subsequently fled their homes in fear.
Regrettably, such incidents are nothing new: paramilitaries in conjunction with government army and police forces, as well as guerrilla groups, have killed and displaced hundreds of people and communities in the Urabá region since the 1990s. This begs the question: How might “peace” actually be created in such a context?
As part of its 16 years of community struggle to defend the survival and self- determination of the area’s civilian and campesino population in the face of the country’s warring armed groups, the Peace Community invited journalists, academics, members from its 11 villages, delegates from other Colombian campesino and indigenous communities, and international protective accompaniment organizations to join the caravan. Beginning on October 6, we marched through several Peace Community villages and adjacent settlements and towns to reach Rodoxalí.
Upon arrival, Peace Community leaders proposed to the village’s six remaining families that we accompany them for a few days. They happily accepted, noting that such a large contingent of people had not been seen there for two decades. They revealed that, even before the most recent displacement of people, the village had been a skeleton of its previous self since the mid-1990s. It once was a thriving settlement that hosted local soccer tournaments before paramilitaries and the national army displaced the local population, reportedly in preparation for the nearby Urrá hydroelectric dam project, killing many residents and burning down most of the houses in the process.
They mentioned the heavy paramilitary presence currently in the region and a recently distributed paramilitary pamphlet claiming to support the campesinos, despite widespread beliefs in the region that they are in fact carrying out a land grab. Our caravan would later encounter army soldiers casually dressed and taking photos of us near the site of a recently vacated paramilitary dormitory. Yet, they said they had no specific knowledge of any paramilitary kidnapping or presence, suggesting at the very least a tacit collusion with the death squads.
We set up our hammocks and tents in some vacant buildings. The recently abandoned house in which my group stayed was particularly chilling: in two rooms, clothes that had been left behind were scattered and molding on the ground. In the kitchen, there was a rotting box of spilt flour, and small ducks and chickens wandered outside under the lemon and cacao trees scavenging for food…
When families are forcibly displaced, they take whatever they can carry on their backs and horses, which often means they bring only themselves, their children, and any large animals such as pigs, which serve as the primary savings of small- scale farmers. What is left behind is likely destroyed or lost forever. This unarmed pilgrimage of peace and solidarity with these families was organized to confront the paramilitaries and complicit state forces and to assert the rights of the area’s campesinos to work their farms as they desire: without threats and killings by armed groups that compete to control the land.
However, the paramilitaries were nowhere to be seen. The following day, we walked to an adjacent settlement where they were reportedly camped, but they had retreated into the surrounding hills from there, too. Pilgrimage participants believed that this revealed the paramilitaries’ own recognition that they lack a valid verbal defense before such a civilian delegation. Participants also suspected that national police and army officials in nearby Nuevo Antioquia —through whose checkpoints the delegation had passed the day before— informed the paramilitary groups of the caravan so that they would hide their presence.
Officially, the Colombian government claims that such “paramilitaries” targeting civilians don’t exist. It asserts that, in addition to guerrillas, there are only drug- trafficking “criminal bands.” Our large contingent of people from other regions and countries, especially accompaniment organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) Peace Presence, served to testify to the witnessed realities to our support networks in the diplomatic corps and human rights organizations. According to Peace Community member Danilo, the state officials probably told the paramilitaries: “if they see you, we’re screwed.”
When we departed Rodoxalí the following day, residents said that they were energized by our visit, felt accompanied and not alone, and invited the Peace Community to return. At the conclusion of the pilgrimage in the community’s Mulatos Peace Village, we reflected on what had occurred and what we had done. With local accounts, we had unfortunately confirmed the tragic forced displacements induced by the paramilitary presence, with apparent government forces’ backing.
Additionally, though, the visit provided relief to those families who continue to resist fleeing their homes and laid the groundwork for future visits. We hope the paramilitaries and the army will respond to this act of civilian solidarity by abstaining from future killing and forced displacement, knowing that their actions will be reported to the outside world.
To put it bluntly, our group of unarmed civilians caused an armed death squad to flee into the hills. Indigenous and Peace Community leaders commented that, without the accompaniment of organizations like FOR —which the Peace Community positioned at the front of the caravan to demonstrate international observation and lead the line in any encounter with an armed group— the paramilitaries probably would not have retreated. The pilgrimage demonstrated that the collective action of walking and presence of unarmed civilian campesinos joined by solidary accompaniers can open space for people to resist displacement and harvest the fruits of their agricultural labor with dignity. As stated in the Peace Community’s subsequent statement: “Weapons will not intimidate us, and before the sowers of death, we will always choose life.”
Just as significant was our walking itself. Parts of the path were brutal. There were long stretches of thigh-high mud, in which people’s rubber boots got stuck. Others would move near to help pull them out of the ground. We had to cross rivers multiple times, which became more challenging after an afternoon of heavy rain and thunderstorms raised the water level. People locked hands while leaping from rock to rock. At one deep crossing, a senior community member immersed himself in the three-foot deep water, literally pulling horses and people across to the other side. Peace Community leaders made our commitment explicit at the outset: “We are in a war zone, but no one will be left behind.”
One of the main lessons of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó is to re- think and practice “peace.” This concept usually refers to some future and idealized attainment of “harmony.” Yet, as the vaguely or undefined utopia that is the opposite of an equally vague “violence,” peace as such is a fairly useless term. Even the most brutal warlord justifies their actions as in the pursuit of “peace.” If we limit our understanding of peace to an abstract and utopian opposite of open warfare, we relegate the possibility for safe, clean, and meaningful lives to the actions and negotiations of states and armed groups. We forfeit our own agency. The Peace Community illustrates that even as the war rages on, we cannot cede our power to create the lives we deserve to groups of oppression and domination. The task is enacting peace as dignity and community self-determination here and now.
This pilgrimage pointed to a more profound praxis of peace, signaled by Siriaco and Diego as “Caminando la palabra”: we walked the word. We did not merely profess to support some vague notion of peace, but actually generated relationships of care and love amongst ourselves as we marched in solidarity with the threatened families of Rodoxalí. Hopefully, the political pressure exerted upon the paramilitaries and the state by the caravan opened space for these civilian campesinos to remain on and farm their lands without being forced to collaborate with armed groups. Through greater visibility and a wider support network, including the Peace Community, journalists, and international human rights organizations, Rodoxalí’s farmers can draw on a greater array of resources in their struggle.
More so, as we walked together, we actually lived the peace we want to live, rejecting the logic of competition and individualism and affirming that everyone’s life must be defended by a collective political project. We can do it, and do it now, walking and working together in solidarity, as campesino and indigenous communities, academics, journalists, and international accompaniers. In the words of Peace Community member Yirleidy: “Peace is everyone working together towards the same goal. Peace is community.”
*The names of people quoted in this article were changed because of safety concerns.
Chris Courtheyn is a Ph.D. student in Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a former accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). He can be reached at email@example.com. A special thanks to FOR’s Luke Finn, Michaela Soellinger and John Lindsay-Poland for contributing their ideas, photos and edits.
A River of Life Searching for the Dead, by Camilo Segura Álvaro (awkward phrasing my fault)
On the 31st of August Buenaventura Hoyos, a peasant farmer from the La Hoz region of Apartadó (in Urabá, North West Colombia), was held by the paramilitary group the Gaitanist Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, or AGC). According to human rights organizations, the farmer was last seen on September 3rd, restrained by his captors, on the road to neighboring Córdoba. It seems Hoyos had been the victim of forced recruitment. His family fled La Hoz, just as 50 others have since the end of August, and like them, they had seen a group of more than 200 paramilitary soldiers camped between Nueva Antioquia (in Turbo, Antioquia) and the various villages that form the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó.
El Espectador accompanied a “Pilgrimage for Life” led by the Peace Community, indigenous representatives from around Colombia, human rights organizations, and international accompaniers. Some 120 people mobilized with concrete objectives: to look for the paramilitaries in their base, said by the communities to be near the village of Sabaleta; to collect eyewitness reports from people who had seen the paramilitaries in action; to discover the fate of Beunaventura Hoyos; to confront, unarmed, the paramilitaries; to hear the reasons for the threats they have made against the Peace Community; and to exercise the dignity that they have cultivated over 16 years of practicing active neutrality and non-violence in the face of the various actors of Colombia´s conflict.
The pilgrimage, which began on Sunday the 6th of October, divided into 2 groups. Both departed from San Josecito (the largest of the 11 villages of the Peace Community), destined for Nueva Antioquia, the known center of paramilitary operations in the region. The first group, of almost 70 people, travelled by mule and on foot through the village of La Union to arrive on Monday in the town center of Nueva Antioquia. The other group, travelling by bus, would arrive in the same destination the following day. Here began the true march, which lasted 4 days more and which would show the Peace Community to be right: Urabá is being taken by force by an illegal group which promises to continue the history of violence against peasant organizations under the rubric of a supposed war against subversives.
In Nueva Antioquia, it is dead calm. In this small town there are two heavily guarded Police stations. An advanced posting, on the hill next to the town, and a station on the main avenue tell the story of the armed conflict. At the latter, the commission of international observers and journalists arrived, accompanying the Jesuit priest Father Javier Giraldo (leader and historic supporter of the Peace Community), to talk to the Public Forces. “I only have jurisdiction over the town itself, I cannot vouch that criminal gangs operate here (he never used the word “paramilitaries”). In recent months, at our checkpoints, we have captured 2 people with criminal records. We are the State presence here, there isn’t a local authority. This is an abandoned town”, said Adolfo Renalh, the Intendent who commands the station.
So, without official confirmation of the AGC´s presence, the pilgrimage leaves for the village of Rodoxalí, where, days before, paramilitaries had warned of the “need” for them to “exercise control in the region”. On roads the locals can walk in three hours, the pilgrimage takes seven. Upon arrival, the testimonies of the people of this village, that doesn’t form part of the Peace Community, despite their words of happiness told of the horrors of the war: “We are so happy you have come, we feel supported. But we are scared – they’ve gone to the mountains, Nueva Antioquia must have warned them you were coming, and when you leave we don’t know what´s going to happen” confessed one of the villagers that offered hospitality to the people of San José de Apartadó.
The next day, on Tuesday, a group marched toward Sabaleta. There the testimonies gathered by Father Giraldo were more specific, and spoke of the armbands with the initials AGC, of heavy weaponry, of the hooded men on operation who, at the very least, are ignored by the Army troops. Without discovering the exact location of the illegal group, the group of no more than 40 peasant farmers returned to Rodoxalí, to leave the next day to Mulatos, the epicenter of the Peace Community’s dignified fight. With the departure of the last marchers and riders, three rifle shots sound, coming from the hills surrounding the village – as if to say: “Goodbye, you don’t see us, but we’re here”.
The road to Mulatos, the final destination for Wednesday, had less topographical difficulties. The stretch, of 5 hours, was interrupted by our arrival at one point, on the borders of La Hoz, at more proof of the paramilitary presence. A camp, clearly abandoned recently by the AGC, with their initials painted over rudimentary sleeping quarters. Less than 400 meters away, an active Army camp. The Army officials that approach the caravan say they are there to deal with issues of public order, but, like the Nueva Antioquia Police, deny knowledge of the existence of any “criminal gang”.
To get to the village of Mulatos you must first repeatedly cross the River Mulatos, 10 times or more. There, in the village, the project of resistance of the Peace Community is at its most evident: The Luiz Eduardo Guerra Peace Settlement, named after the Community leader assassinated on the 21st of Februrary 2005, along with 3 children and 4 other adults in Mulatos and nearby La Resbalosa, by members of the Colombian National Army and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
“This village we built as a tribute to those that fell that day, but also to the more than 200 dead and disappeared from these last 16 years. Here we not only launched our model of agricultural self-sustainability and education, but demonstrated that we can live in a better word, built by us in resistance against the neglect and violence of the State” says Alrey Tuberquia, member of the Council of the Peace Community.
On Thursday, in Mulatos, the pilgrimage divides again in two. One group, made of Indigenous Committees and Community members, stayed for the “University of Resistance”, working toward self-sustainability and strengthening the power of neutrality in the face of conflict. The other group left to complete the circle, and return to San Jocesito.