Letter from the Field, October 2007
By Amanda Jack, CPP team
“What kind of people would treat a house like this?” This was the simple question asked out loud by one of the women in the work group we had accompanied to Mulatos. The group of 17, mostly men and some women, had spent the last week making a home out of an abandoned and abused house in a far-flung corner of the district of San José de Apartadó. The land and house, belonging to a community member, is an eight-hour, muddy, and up-mountain walk from San Josecito. It is located in an area that stands out in the collective memory of the community as the site of massive displacement and murder in the violent ’90s and as the site of the brutal massacre in February 2005. Nevertheless, careful planning and coordination had brought this group together, along with FOR’s accompaniment, to a house that had clearly seen better days.
Where I saw a barely-standing house that appeared to have little to offer in the way of actual shelter, my friend had seen a telltale sign of abuse and neglect: a basic refusal to honor the simplicity of shelter, a rejection of the simple needs required by the humble life of the countryside. The kinds of people that would treat a house like this were the obvious armed groups: Colombian military, paramilitary and guerrilla forces. The house was a map of the cruelty suffered by the people it once sheltered. This family had fled to escape the violence, but the house endured, used by armed groups roaming the zone; the house told the story of the conflict. The sturdy walls made from earth and manure still bore some of the whitewash, though it was flaking off, and absolutely absent in places where the walls had been used for grenade practice. It had become a canvas of sorts, the backdrop for any and all armed groups to etch their names, their creeds, their propaganda onto its humble but strong walls. Soon after the family was displaced almost 15 years ago, paramilitaries had torched the roof, burning a sizable hole into the middle of the largest room in the house. This meant that the consistent rain also resulted in indoor rain, creating indoor puddles that nourished the trees that had begun growing from the earthen floor.
Now, people were looking to the house again to meet the basic need for shelter from the cold and rainy nights. Our hammocks were tied close to other hammocks, and in our case, around a window hole and then through the hole left by a grenade. This setup only added to the surreal experience of accompanying this work group as they set out to prepare the long-neglected land for planting, in hopes that little by little they might re-open the space for what the community hopes will be a permanent return of civilians. Here we were settling in just down the river from the site of the horrendous 2005 machete massacre of eight people including Community co-founder Luis Eduardo Guerra and three children. And here were the friends, neighbors and family of those killed performing the humble and ordinary task of clearing land, cobbling together shelter and planting the soil-rich fields.
The concept of return is a central theme in the Peace Community’s current resistance strategy. Really, the idea of returning to land that communities were displaced from is essential to any campesino movement in Colombia, not to mention the struggles of Afro-Colombian communities and Indigenous communities. With over three million internally displaced Colombians, going back is the ultimate dream. The hope of return is implicit in the despair of displacement. And despite the fact that the violence has not always drastically abated in the lands they were forced to leave, communities continue to organize returns and continue to find success among the enormous risks.
Last October, as FOR volunteers have recounted in this space, a small number of families returned to another far-flung area of the zone, La Esperanza. Despite hardships and threats of violence, those families continue to work that land with the hope that more families will join them and the thriving community that was destroyed by rampant violence will slowly be realized once again. Their daily work in their fields opens up space for more people to make the journey back to these lands. During one of our recent trips to La Esperanza, we were invited into the end of an organizing meeting to introduce our work as accompaniers. Held in a wooden church building, the meeting was dimly lit by a flickering, gas-fed candle giving it the revolutionary aura that stirred something powerful and lasting within me. The light played on the faces of people who had walked hours from all over the area to discuss progress and setbacks and plans for reintroducing elementary education and health centers to the remote area. We were in the company of understated and determined resistance to long-suffered oppression. This was hope realized, the return a year later. A people still far from fully reclaiming that which limitless violence stole from them, but nonetheless bound together in the daily struggle.
The day after that community meeting we continued on from La Esperanza to Mulatos, in order to provide continued accompaniment for the group there and to check in and see how things were progressing. The first thing I noticed as we finally rounded the bend and saw the house was how much it now looked like a home. The new kitchen had been completed and looked warmly used, plastic sheeting had been put up to cover some of the holes left by fires set to the roof. Tree trunks and palm branches were used as shelving or seating and the once-dense jungle that had all but overtaken the structure had been cleared allowing sunlight to stream in and light up the graffiti that suddenly seemed less prominent. Everyone was out in the fields planting, save the cooks who were preparing freshly caught fish for lunch. But, without doubt, the once-neglected and abused house was full of life again, was back in the hands of people who knew how to treat a house, who saw care for the home as an extension of care for one another. And even though this work group is simply preparing the way for what is hoped to be a February ‘08 return of families to Mulatos, it was clear to me that the return had already begun in earnest. Years of abuse and neglect had, in only a week’s time, been replaced by the warmth and courage and humility of these people as they dared to opt for hope, as they dared to open the space for a return.