For 15 years a “peace community” in northwest Colombia has maintained neutrality in the country’s armed conflict, defiantly staying on their land despite ongoing battles between security forces, guerrillas, and neo-paramilitaries.
The Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado in the northwestern Uraba region was founded in 1997 during a particularly bloody period.
“Bullets took the lives of hundreds and hundreds of peasants, workers, trade unionists, councilors and mayors. The vast majority of the population in urban districts and in rural areas had been displaced and the murderers repopulated them with people who dared not say anything against them,” the Peace Community told Colombia Reports Wednesday.
“Our process began in this gloomy picture. Amid threats, massacres, displacement, dismemberment, we declared ourselves as a Peace Community with the firm intention of sticking together to avoid being banished from our land and the conviction that we would not support any of the armed actors: military, paramilitary or guerrilla.”
The Peace Community currently consists of 955 people in 11 villages in the San Jose district of the Tierralta municipality in the northwestern department of Cordoba. Their founding principles were strict neutrality towards all sides in the conflict coupled with a strong desire to hold onto their land. Weapons are forbidden to community members so the only protection they have against violence is their defiance and the occasional support of international NGOs.
“Our stubbornness and obstinacy has given us the strength to build…an alternative life…[one] we have built together … children, young men and women, adults and the elderly…We have a love of life, and from this love of life we fight,” they said.
But remaining on their land has come at a terrible cost. Over 170 of their members have been murdered, including eight people in one notorious massacre in February of 2005 when the army and members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) killed five men and three children.
Members of the armed forces were arrested for their part, but the collaboration of the army with the paramilitaries has not ended according to the Peace Community who claim their members are constantly being threatened by [neo] paramilitaries. They compiled a list of every single instance of aggression made against them from 2002 to 2008 which runs over 200 pages long.
A recent report reads: “Monday February 18, 2013, at about 10.30 hours, a group of heavily armed paramilitaries broke into the house of a member of our peace community in the village of Arenas Bajas, saying that they will be displacing the small farmers of the area as well as the families of our community [and] that they already had everything coordinated with the security forces.”
The following day a young girl was threatened and a local farmer was tortured and ordered to dig his own grave by a [neo] paramilitary group. In the latter incident, according to the community’s report, some unnamed civilians heard of what was happening and intervened to save the man’s life.
The area around San Jose is heavily militarized due to ongoing battles between the Colombian military and FARC guerrilla forces. Neo-paramilitary groups reportedly move through police and military checkpoints at will and the army allegedly ignores the community’s pleas for it to move its bases out of their villages. A battle on January 30 occured in the center of San Jose de Apartado and an army missile reportedly struck a community member’s home.
“The acts of terror do not cease,” said the Peace Community. “If anything, the opposite happens and they intensify. For example, the continuing clashes between the various armed groups that move in the area, such as the military, the [neo] paramilitaries and the guerrillas. Besides this, the increase in coca cultivation in the area is another motivation and incentive for armed groups to fight for control of the area.”
The community was also skeptical of the government’s current peace talks with the FARC.
“The conflict exists because of the inequality this system generates,” they said. “And although peace is signed there will always be inequality in Colombia and in the world.”
Nevertheless, the Peace Community remains hopeful. In a violent and turbulent region of Colombia, the peaceful San Jose de Apartado defiantly endures.