Real Lives Behind the Increasing Numbers of Killings of Human Rights Defenders

Blanquita-Murrí and a Plan for Life

After a four-hour jeep ride through thick forest and passing over waterfalls, the valley of Blanquita-Murrí, Frontino, Antioquia  opened up in front of us. Wide forests and grasslands surrounded the main settlement of the high mountain plain, which is the hub for the various communities which populate this rural district.

A very diverse area, the total population of about 8500 people includes: thirty indigenous communities grouped into seven reserves of the Embera Eyábada nation, seven Afro-Colombian communities who share a collective land title, and seven campesino (small-scale farming) communities. Throughout these communities, over seventy ex-combatants of the FARC have settled in Blanquita-Murrí since the signing of the Peace Accords between the FARC-EP and the government in 2016.

While visiting Blanquita-Murrí with community workers from the post-agreement project “de la guerra a la Paz” (from war to Peace) we met with the interethnic roundtable, which is an initiative of the different communities of the region to strengthen interconnectedness and construct peace. The interethnic roundtable has met regularly since November of 2018. Lately, its members have been working on a “plan de vida” (plan for life). As a form of community empowerment, this process includes a characterization of the population and the territory so that they can design their own projects for infrastructure, education, and health care and alike. This demonstrates the kind of long term planning which is considered an essential part of the authentic construction of peace.

But on August 8th, 2019, tragedy struck.  Three people were killed in a dispute between armed groups over territorial control, one of whom was a sixteen year-old boy from one of the thirty local indigenous communities, who happened to be in the town at the time of the attack.   

In response to the attack, the governor of Antioquia Luis Pérez said, ”These areas are full of coca. After the ex-combatants arrived, it started to become an area where even the residents can’t go. They are areas in control of delinquents with a criminal interest.” The governor further mentioned that certain authorities “recommended that Blanquita, where there are demobilized (guerrillas), candidates for elected office should not go, because the situation is complicated.” This is a dangerous stigmatization of the ex-combatants specifically and the civil population of Blanquita-Murrí more generally.

The civilian population of the zone has suffered violence throughout Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict. In 1996, there was massive displacements in which almost everyone left, and some inhabitants  never returned. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s they were stigmatized as being part of illegal armed groups, which led to violence and fueled the armed conflict. The community does not want to return to that.

In the midst of fear and anxiety, which we felt during our visit, the interethnic roundtable sent an open letter to the governor with the following demands:

  • Stop stigmatizing the communities of Blanquita-Murrí
  • Faithfully commit to the construction of peace in their territories and, as a result, implement the Final Peace Agreements (with the FARC-EP)
  • Respect and acknowledge the communities, who continue to fight day in and day out with unity and words to construct peace.
  • Complete guarantees for a dignified life for their communities.

On the last day of our visit, we shared chorizo and arepas with our friends from “de la guerra a la Paz” as people passed by on the way to work. We shared laughs and at the same time we feel a tense seriousness, which we attribute to the challenges they have to face. Despite the challenges, they remain optimistic that the interethnic roundtable and the plan for life – an attempt to sew social fabric in the midst of war – can contribute to a future without stigmatization and violence.

Perspectives on Peace: Fabiola from Santa Rosa de Guayacán

In early August, we were able to travel with our partner Communities Constructing Peace in the Territories (CONPAZ) to Bajo Calima and the San Juan River, in the rural region outside of Buenaventura. There we heard from various indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that the promised era of peace has not yet arrived. Armed groups remain active in the region and the government is doing little to protect people, leaving them with no other option than to build their own peace from the ground up.

Today we bring you one such account. Fabiola is from the indigenous community of Santa Rosa de Guayacán. They have been confined to their land – unable to travel for school or economic activities – following the murder of an Afro-Colombian woman in the area in early July. This community has suffered multiple displacements from their ancestral lands despite precautionary measures ordered in 2011 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Fabiola is one of the young leaders from the Wounaan indigenous community living on the Santa Rosa de Guayacán reservation. They declared their lands as a humanitarian biodiverse space.They were displaced three times (2004, 2010, and 2017) because of violence and combat between armed groups on the river.

Fabiola believes that in order to protect life, her community needs to be able to live on their ancestral lands without fear of displacement. Here, they will be able to remain united and strengthen the indigenous guard, two essential elements for the creation of long-lasting peace.

Reflections on Returning to the Peace Community

by Tom Power

When we arrived in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó for Christmas, former accompanier Emily and I didn’t really know what to expect. Neither of us had been there for some time, but we were excited that the Peace Community was going to have their Christmas celebration in the new “aldea” (small village), a 45 minute walk from La Unión.

The new “aldea” that the Peace Community has constructed is amazing. About a dozen families live in the newly constructed homes that overlook the Gulf of Urabá, building community through shared projects such as a flourishing garden. This “aldea” is named after Rigoberto Guzman, one of the Peace Community’s leaders who was killed in the massacre of 2000. He is one of many leaders whose bravery and commitment to the Peace Community motivates them to continue moving forward. I was inspired at their new space, and the way they have created rebirth amidst ongoing armed conflict.

Unfortunately, they need this continued resistance because the conflict in Urabá is far from over.  While the FARC demobilized following the 2016 Peace Accords with the government, paramilitary groups continue to grow more powerful in San José. In the short time we were there, paramilitary groups issued death threats to the Peace Community and extorted butchers who live in the main village, just a half mile away from San Josecito- the biggest Peace Community settlement. Paramilitary groups are also charging a fee for each head of cattle owned by the residents of San José, making cattle ranching prohibitively expensive.

Of course, the Peace Community refuses to be extorted, putting them at even higher risk.

Furthermore, the 17th brigade has placed a writ for the protection of constitutional rights against the Peace Community. The 17th brigade alleges the Peace Community has damaged their “right to a good name” for saying the army is working with paramilitaries. After this alarming step taken by the 17th Brigade, various entities and organizations came out in support of the Peace Community, highlighting their right to denounce paramilitary activity and human rights violations in their region.  Nonetheless, if this judicial process is successful, the Peace Community could lose their legal status in the country.

Despite these challenges, the Peace Community still celebrated Christmas, honoring how much they have accomplished. They are no strangers to these types of threats from armed actors and have over 20 years of experience resisting them. Grassroots movements such as the Peace Community are facing a difficult year, but they will  not be intimidated.

“There will never be true peace, until we eliminate hatred within our hearts as a country.”- Peace Community Leader

The following piece and pictures were originally published in Spanish by our Accompanier Dianna E Almanza. 

Peace Community San José de Apartadó: Community House

When I see the sunrise,

I see how mother nature awakens around me,

As if time stood still,

As if this very precise moment that I am living, were to last for a long time,

In which I am caught in a moment of profound tranquility, completely consumed by the grand beauty that surrounds me.

The earth itself that I walk on emits a profound energy, which I can’t even begin to describe,

The energy evokes many emotions within me,

I feel an immense force, an innate connection between the earth, and the guardians of the earth.

I observe the way in which the community takes care of its earth, treating it with such delicacy,

This is the same delicacy I see shown in the looks, caresses and embraces between parents and their children.

Here, I began to understand, with my own flesh and blood, the true meaning of living a life in peace, without hatred.

 

The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, (Antioquia), Colombia, is a collective of small scale farmers, founded in 1997 in order to resist in the midst of the armed conflict. The small scale farmers declared themselves neutral (they do not interact with any armed group), they practice nonviolence, they don´t allow any arms in their territory and they have to participate in collective working groups. In order to receive more information, in their own words (in Spanish), visit their homepage www.cdpsanjose.org or follow this link for an introduction to the Peace Community of San José the Apartadó on our homepage in English.

The following pictures represent a selection of the very beginning of a photographic memory[1], which, in my opinion is the most convincing representation of the incredible force, unity, beauty and above all, resilience of the community, from my perspective as International Observer and Accompanier.

 

[1] The whole collection can be found in the original publication.

Real Lives Behind the Increasing Numbers of Killings of Human Rights Defenders

During the last months we have been repeatedly alarmed about the dramatically increasing rates of threats and attacks against human rights defenders in Colombia. Since the start of 2018, over 100 Human Rights defenders have been killed.  Seemingly, the situation has become even more violent, during and after the presidential elections, with the new president coming into office this week. 24 human rights leaders were killed just between the months of June and July, averaging almost one human rights defender per day. The number even spiked in the first week of July with nine Human Rights Leaders killed in only four days.

These developments have impacted our work on the ground. We have received a steady increase of general and emergency petitions to walk with and advocate for the safety of social activists and communities, who receive threats, or even attacks. During a visit to Colombia last week, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst expressed his concern about these increasing assassinations of Human Rights Defenders, and highlighted their crucial role in constructing peace in Colombia. Alberto Brunori, the Representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR) in Colombia, also stressed that the situation for human rights defenders is very serious.

These human rights defenders are our hope for peace in Colombia! We would like to share at least a few lines about some of them, who do stand for many, knowing that their doings can never be resumed so shortly.


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