The signing of the peace accords between the FARC-EP and Colombian government in 2016 was a significant step forward in the name of ending conflict and establishing peace throughout Colombia. But, it was just the first step in what has proven to be a difficult and challenging road forward. Amongst these challenges lies the difficult task of reconciliation and the reintegration of demobilized guerrilla groups into civilian society. Although the FARC-EP have honored their commitment to demobilize from the 2016 peace agreement, over 400 disarmed fighters or their family members have been murdered since 2016, and paramilitary groups have been gaining strength since the signing of the agreement throughout the entire region.
The daily life of rural villages like San José de León have undergone radical change since the 2016 signing. Many of them have undertaken their own projects to facilitate reconciliation and strengthen community bonds, as they pave a new path forward in a post-peace accord country. In San José de León, we found inspiring peacebuilding being carried out in the midst of ongoing violence, threats, and fear. What brought us to the region? Why are we here? And, what are we doing?
How did we arrive to San José de León? All about our first visit.
Our first visit to San José de León was in 2018 when we were invited, alongside IFOR Austria, by the Lutheran Church (IELCO). IELCO was working beside the local community on a project entitled “From War to Peace”, focused on post-peace accord reconciliation efforts. Post accords, San José de León, like many small villages, found themselves thrown into a new local dynamic: disarmed ex-guerrilla fighters had recently arrived to the region to start new lives and begin a process of reintegration. In 2017, the ex-combatants and their families arrived in San José de León on trucks loaded with chickens, pigs, and goats. With the money they received from the government for demobilization, they purchased a plot of land and built 42 houses, a school, a road, and nine fish ponds in the span of two years. The village, which previously had been home to small scale farmers, now found itself with a unique dynamic and, faced with the challenge of welcoming their new neighbors, began to organize a process of reconciliation and collective peacebuilding. The ex-combatants, full of optimism for their new lives named their settlement the Haven of Peace.
In 2019, the community, along with the Lutheran Church, requested support from FORPP and IFOR Austria for international accompaniment to strengthen their project and provide additional security measures.
Why are we here?
Our now partner organization IELCO has been accompanying San José de León for many years as they carried out projects to strengthen reconciliation and bring both sides of the local population together, strengthening bonds between original members as well as the newly integrated.
One participant commented: “The next story we write will no longer be about an era of violence. It will be about how we have built a new history of rural areas, one that is woven with our hands. We do this through building trust with those who have been around longer than we have and building trust between people who were born here and the new members of the community.”
What has accompaniment accomplished?
Throughout the past four years, numerous projects focused on reconciliation and community building have been implemented:
· IELCO, who we accompany directly, led a project to construct a communal house to allow for visitors, both Colombian as well as international accompaniers, educational projects, capacity building and other trainings for the local community
· The San José de León community co-created a communal rice growing project which includes over 25 families in order to strengthen food sovereignty and strengthen community bonds.
What are the biggest challenges?
In the Urabá region, standing up against violence and conflict and working for social justice is incredibly dangerous. Throughout the region illegal economies predominate – including drug trafficking, migration and mining – and standing up against them often results in threats, violence, and attacks. The lush terrain found in the Urabá region has drawn economic interest, including large-scale mining and agro-industrial projects. This, combined with an ongoing presence of paramilitary successor groups and continued recruitment throughout the region, as well as the continued persecution of former guerrilla fighters, place communities like San José de León, who are standing up against violence and criminal activity at risk.