We share an excerpt from a blog post written in 2010 by Chris Courtheyn, former FOR Accompanier in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó and current member of our Board of Directors.
Two years ago, the first major event I accompanied as an FOR volunteer in Colombia was the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó’s “return” to the veredas of Mulatos and La Resbaloza. (A vereda is a small rural district of dispersed rural settlements.) The farmers living there had originally been displaced in 1996, along with thousands of others throughout the country’s northwestern Urabá region, when paramilitaries swept the area in an attempted takeover of territory. The Peace Community began to return to these veredas in 2004, only to suffer the horrendous massacre, attributed to an army and paramilitary operation, of eight of its members on February 21, 2005. Three years later, the Peace Community attempted to return once again.
I remember vividly my first trip to Mulatos, on February 19, 2008. I had only a week earlier arrived in the Peace Community for the first time. The five-hour walk through hills and riverbeds to Mulatos from the settlement of La Unión where FOR’s team lives was brutal on my body, exhausting my legs and knees. Arriving at the site of the 2005 massacre, there was nothing more than a small chapel in what seemed the middle of the bush. In fact, this space to where community members had returned in 2004 was now totally overgrown with tall grasses. The area was subsequently cleared and prepared for the events that would take place two days later: a mass at the massacre site in Mulatos, and a commemoration event honoring those killed in La Resbaloza.
I made this first trip with my teammate at the time, Daniel Malakoff. He had been a FOR accompanier previously in 2005, and in the aftermath of the massacre remembered Mulatos as a desolate place. He commented how much had changed in the previous three years, in seeing various farmers along the trails, houses under construction, and the newly planted crops, such as corn. He told me that he perceived that the Peace Community had responded to the tragedy of 2005 with intense resilience and had become even stronger. (Read his Letter from the Field: http://forcolombia.org/monthlyupdate/feb2008/#letter)
Fast forward to 2010. The area that only two years ago was overgrown with weeds is now a settlement of its own: the Peace Village of Mulatos. In the proceeding weeks, Peace Community members from other veredas such as La Unión, La Cristalina, Alto Joaquín and Las Claras, had come to build the village. The new constructions were numerous: kiosks and homes, a kitchen and a dining hall, toilet and shower stalls.
Hundreds of people participated in the week-long commemoration of the 2005 massacre. Peace Community members were joined by representatives from other communities, such as indigenous Colombians from Cauca and Chocó, as well as internationals from Italy, Austria, France, Brazil, and the United States.
Community families have now returned to over ten veredas since its founding in 1997. Mulatos is emblematic of the community’s process, illustrating the constant obstacles it faces, where attempts to return are stalled through massacres and threats. Today, guerrillas, paramilitaries and army soldiers continue to pressure these farmers to submit to their command or to flee, yet the community remains vigilant and vows to return to and work their lands no matter how long it takes.
Community principles have evolved over time, as well. As explained by a member: “In the founding of the community, our priority was to return to and remain on our lands through nonviolent resistance. However, over the past two years, our principles have grown from simply not collaborating with any armed group to a focus on not replicating in any way the logic of the armed groups. In other words, to not simply reject violence in order to survive in the midst of war, but to work together even harder to develop a true social and economic alternative of peace. This has meant more harmony with the environment, such as cultivating our crops organically and building agricultural centers where we can harvest medicinal plants available in the region. We are continuing to evolve more and more into a true ‘community’ with the environment and with each other. This Peace Village in Mulatos is a focal point for this alternative vision.”
Many community members and non-members alike expressed similar feelings about the meaning of the gathering. In the words of an indigenous community leader, “learning about the history and resistance here makes me realize that peasants throughout Colombia face similar problems. The dynamic of the armed groups and multinational companies threatening to displace us from our lands is not unique to one place. This gathering shows us we are not alone; internationals are in solidarity with our resistance and your accompaniment increases our security.”
People expressed these feelings of togetherness and hope two years ago. Even more powerful is the extent to which the Peace Community has built upon this solidarity since then. A place where five years ago lay blood and dismembered bodies is now a peace village of remembrance and resistance.