“The meaning of the word like perseverance, humility and accompaniment sunk deeply during my months with the families of San José de Apartadó, as together we earnestly and imperfectly sought to protect one another.” Chris More Backmann, FOR Team member 2002
The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, located in Colombia’s northern region of Urabá, is one of many communities in Colombia to take a non-violent stand against the war by refusing to support any of the armed actors in the conflict. Despite having been forcibly displaced multiple times and amidst continued risks, the Community made the decision to return and remain on their land.
Located in a fertile land close to the Gulf of Urabá, an entry corridor for arms movement and drug-trafficking from Colombia to Central America, the Caribbean and the United States, the region is a highly militarized area with a strong presence of legal and illegal armed actors. Throughout their resistance, the Community has faced violence and massacres from all armed actors, such as the FARC insurgency as well as paramilitary groups supported by the Colombian Army. At present, the existence of the Peace Community remains a principle obstacle to expansion of armed actors within the Urabá and Chocó regions.
The establishment of the Peace Community is based on principles of international humanitarian law that protect civilians from being involved in the armed conflict. Since 1997, the Peace Community counts with protective precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, and since 2000 with provisional measures from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR).
Despite the existence of IACHR provisional measures, the Peace Community has paid a high price for its firm conviction: since its founding, more than 180 members have been assassinated and members of the community suffered more than 900 human rights violations, including confiscation of farm animals, money and goods, forced displacement, rape, abduction, detention, threats and defamation. Two emblematic violations are the massacre of La Unión in 2000 where six leaders of the community were assassinated and the massacre of February 2005 in Mulatos and La Resbalosa, where eight people, including Community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra and three children, were massacred in a joint military and paramilitary operation.
In several occasions (2003, 2007, 2012) the Colombian Constitutional Court has recognized the vulnerability of the members of the Peace Community and the reasons why the community ruptured relations with the State after the massacre of 2005, it also ordered that it is the State who has worked to overcome the rupture and specificies how to achieves this in the Auto 164/12 from 2012. Part of this was that President Juan Manuel Santos retracted the defamations of former president Alvaro Uribe Veléz and asked for forgiveness to the Peace Community.
The Founding of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó
In the middle of the 1990s, as violence escalated and peasant farmers suffered from extrajudicial deaths at the hands of armed actors as well as forced displacements, the people began to organize themselves in order to return to their land and to escape from the spiral of violence. Supported by the bishop of the Diocese of Apartadó (assassinated in 2002) and Jesuit priest Father Javier Giraldo, these group of farmers founded the Peace Community on March 23, 1997.
Conscientiously objecting to the war and demanding their rights as civilians not to be involved in a conflict, the community denounced the use of arms within their territories and committed to a variety of principles in the process (including cooperative communal work, prohibition of alcohol, the non-use of illicit drugs, the no-entry of armed actors, non-use of weapons and the refusal to provide information to armed actors).
The Fight over Land
With over 6 million forcibly displaced people, the fight over territory and land is one of the main aspects of the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia. The Peace Community belongs to one of the most vulnerable groups in Colombia: peasant farmers. As the primary victims of the conflict, their land attract interests from both legal and illegal armed actors seeking control over the zone, corporations looking to expand their reach in extractive resources as well as criminal groups looking to move coca from South America to other parts of the world. Hence, simply by choosing to remain on their land, farmers find themselves in a precarious position, even after peace accords signed between government and FARC.
By insisting on their right to remain on their land, the members of the Peace Community highlight a way to non-violently resist forced displacement and to turn their victimhood into a place of strength.
Petition for International Accompaniment
The year 2000 was a tragic one for the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, as it suffered two massacres at the hands of the paramilitaries: five people were killed in the town center of San José de Apartadó and in June six leaders of the Peace Community were assassinated in the village of La Unión. Along with the human rights organization Global Exchange, FOR-USA’s Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean TFLAC decided to organize a U.S. delegation to Colombia in March 2001. The Peace Community requested permanent international presence and accompaniment from FOR-USA to the settlement of La Unión. Two more visits were made to the community in 2001 to develop the relationship, TFLAC’s understanding of the Community’s process, and consider the possibilities of international accompaniment.
While analyzing the request from the Community, various factors were considered. The Peace Community already had periodic accompaniment from Peace Brigades International in the town center of San José de Apartadó, and national support from human rights organizations. Analyzing the experiences of PBI, the conflict in Colombia and specifically in the region of Urabá, and considering the international recognition of the Peace Community, an advisory committee determined that generally armed actors respected and were wary of an international presence, refraining from directly attacking the Community while it was accompanied.
FORPP continues its permanent presence in La Unión. We live day in and day out in this Peace Community village and we walk with Peace Community members from one village to another. In meetings with local military and civilian authorities we raise concern about the human rights violations.
Volunteers share their memories
“I have seen two distinct realities y have tried to understand how they can exist simultaneously. One reality is the peasant life — hard work and pride in that, laughter, so many skills that I don’t have (how to saddle a horse, for example), huge plates of rice and beans, fried plantains, expeditions with the children to far away fruit trees. And on top of this life — inside of it — is the life of war, the memories, the constant monitoring of the armed groups (soldiers were spotted in the road yesterday… was it a checkpoint or were they only passing through? the noise of gunshots and the evaluation: are they close? are they coming closer?), the fear. And this reality of the war carries its opposite — the reality of resistance to the war and its logic, the resistance that this community is living everyday.
I see people who every day choose to resist the military and economic forces that want to stop them through displacement, death, buying them off as informants or whatever other way, but who also choose every day to smile at me.
I see that the resistance is composed not only of a political position, but also of how one lives ones daily life. And the two realities that seem so distinct, seem to merge… survival is resistance and resistance is survival, life is made up of the past, present and future, of memory, of daily chores and of moving forward. One has to always move forward.” Former FORPP volunteer in San José de Apartadó
“What I’ll miss of La Unión: The delicious organic food people share with us: beans, eggs, yucca (cassava), corn on the cob, avocados, plantains, and meat: locally-raised chicken, duck and beef, as well as my favorite, tatabra (wild boar hunted in the mountains). What I will miss the most: the people of the Peace Community…” Chris Courtheyn, former FORPP volunteer and current board member. Read more from Chris.