By FOR Peace Presence Accompanier Nikki Drake
After climbing up to the top of the ridge in the heat of the midday sun, we have arrived in La Resbalosa — members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, international accompaniment organizations, Colombian human rights attorneys, and international journalists & photographers. Our group gathers together in the shade of a tree, ready for the second part of this ten-year commemoration of the massacre that took the lives of seven members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó and a neighboring farmer.
Next to us the house still sits empty where on February 22, 2005 at this very hour, a family of four was murdered and dismembered in a joint operation between paramilitaries and the Colombian National Army. A short distance down the hill a fifth victim was slain. Earlier this morning in Mulatos, we commemorated the three other lives so brutally taken on February 21, 2005, including Community founder and leader Luis Eduardo Guerra, his companion, and his 11-year-old son.
The crowd grows silent as a leader from the Internal Council makes an announcement. “We have just become aware of the presence of soldiers here on our land just a short walk from here. Their presence violates our protective measures, so before we begin our commemoration, we invite the group to accompany us to go request that they leave.”
The news comes as a bitter reminder on this tragic anniversary. As we walk to confront the soldiers, we pass by the small wooden chapel that was built over the site where the remains of the victims were discovered by Community members after the massacre. We come across the soldiers within minutes, who are spread along small campsites cut out of the thick jungle undergrowth. After half an hour of discourse by Community leaders and the human rights lawyers who represent the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, the troops finally pack up their camp and leave. But before going, the commanding officer defends his troops’ presence: “We are here to protect the Community.” Bitter laughter spreads through the crowd. “Protect us? We are here today to commemorate the massacre of our members by the military.” With that, the soldiers withdraw from the Community’s property.
To date, only a small number of the paramilitary or military perpetrators of the massacre have been fully investigated, and an even smaller number charged. And throughout the years since, military presence on PC lands has been all too common, despite protective measures by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. This time the desired outcome was achieved, but oftentimes soldiers refuse to leave, disrespect members, and damage crops.
Our group makes its way back to the chapel for the commemoration, where Community members and guests honor the lives of the victims with readings and music, united in solidarity. It is an occasion to remember, and to draw inspiration and hope for that day when the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó and their loved ones finally get the justice they deserve. Lawyers for the Community tirelessly continue to request and pressure the Colombian government and courts to advance the legal proceedings of the massacre that have been dragging out for ten years.
In the meantime, the Peace Community continues to honor the memory of all the lives lost during their eighteen-year struggle with determination and continued non-violent resistance to the Colombian conflict.