By Adilah Nasir, FOR Peace Presence International Accompanier
Recently, as part of the FOR Peace Presence team in Urabá, Nikki and I accompanied several members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó in Mulatos, a settlement in which several members of the Community live and work in.
As my mule trudged eastward through the muddy path that would eventually lead towards la Aldea de Paz of the community (established in memory of Luis Eduardo Guerra, a community leader who was murdered during the 2005 massacre along with his companion and child), I couldn´t help being distracted by the panoramic view before me. The camino towards the Aldea started off open through a pristine and crystalline river, but continued uphill into an earthier landscape, drenched by the wet rainy April season. Soon we found ourselves enclosed by thick forests – you could almost forget you were on top of a mountain, if not for the breathtaking view of the surrounding valleys, its color a deep lush green and misted, giving a surreal feel to the whole journey.
The surreal, mystical feel of the journey would have lulled anyone into a false sense of security, although in our case there would be no such delusions. In parts of the route, the team and the community passed through a significant amount of military soldiers camped along the trail, their tents perched on the sides. We had been aware of their presence since days prior to the accompaniment, as well as the general increase in police and military soldiers in the area.
Further, despite the consensus in La Habana that demining would commence in Antioquia, there remains a concern about landmines. Just a few weeks ago, a police officer had accidentally stepped on and set off a mine nearby. In the surrounding area, increased presence of armed groups and operations by the public forces have also caused a lot of civilian displacements.
This is the reality of life for the civilians here in Mulatos and other surrounding settlements, who live with continuous concern amidst the façade of paradise before them.
Just a few weeks ago, there were focused operatives of the Colombian public forces over Mulatos and its surroundings, with helicopters flying and landing in the zone. Twice, a helicopter unloading and taking away troops landed directly onto the football pitch belonging to the Aldea de Paz of the Peace Community, just meters away from a kiosco which the community has been using as a school for the children. This might draw combats closer into civilian-populated areas of the Community, as well as it not being in line with the Community´s protective measures from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The heavy militarization and intensifying operations in the zone by the Colombian public forces are due to the fact that they are targeted against multiple and not just one armed group. In the last month, the military has accused civilians in Mulatos of supporting the recruitment of minors for FARC guerrillas. Operatives of the National Police have also been in the zone since February for the Toma Masiva de Urabá (a 60-day operation against Clan Úsuga, a local paramilitary group), although the presence of operatives has not subsided since the 60-day mark has passed, but instead, continues under Operación Agamenón.
Aside from that, the resumption of aerial bombing on the part of the government, and the tension between FARC guerrillas and the military since mid-April despite the unilateral ceasefire were causes of concern. All of these factors together carry increased chances of civilian displacements and casualties.
Arriving to La Aldea de Paz of Mulatos, whose perimeters are marked by fences and signs of the Community, we heard shouts of greetings from the children, who immediately gave us hugs without yet even knowing my name (Nikki had been here multiple times before). It was a beautiful moment that gave way to a feeling of warmth and love.
That moment would best explain the ups-and-downs I experienced, the rare sensations and feelings I had throughout the accompaniment during the times we were hosted by the Community in their home spaces and followed them to their weekly trabajo comunitario (community work).
After swimming and washing our clothes down in the river, while making our way back for lunch, we were again reminded of armed actors being close. That, coupled with the constant aerial traffic, was a preoccupying concern for us and the civilians, as it risks drawing combats closer into civilian-populated areas and properties of the Community.
Sure enough, dreaming away in our hammocks early one morning, we were woken up by the sounds of shooting followed by aerial shots from helicopters, signifying a combat occurring in the immediate surrounding zone. Nevertheless, the community continued on to their trabajo comunitario, this week consisting of clearing away overgrown woods on their property. That particular day, jokes and laughter were muffled amidst the constant and heavy air traffic. Later that day, it was confirmed that there was in fact a combat in civilian spaces, and we were requested to accompany the Community to verify the situation.
Further into the week, while out jumping rope and playing lasso with the children, news broke of the FARC guerrillas suspending their unilateral ceasefire and the ongoing aerial bombardment against them.
Amidst the everyday moments of joy and simple happiness, of visiting members of the community and witnessing their daily lives and work, the accompaniment together with the end of the ceasefire left us with a sobering perspective. While, it is pertinent that the peace process moves forward and negotiations continue, increased militarization brings potential combats nearer to civilians and might place them at higher risks of land mines.
If peace is truly to move forward, respect and absence of violence towards civilians, whose interests lie in simply continuing their daily lives and work, must be given priority and their rights protected.