By Dominque Aulisio
The end of April marks my first month here in the Peace Community of San José of Apartadó, where I will be living for the next year as a peace accompanier with FOR. My first weeks here have been full of new experiences, like learning to make arepas from freshly harvested corn, getting to know the beautiful people who are my new neighbors, and absorbing a load of information about the context of the Colombian conflict and our work here. I am also still adjusting to being far away from friends and family and am learning to navigate “the world’s slowest internet connection” with patience.
This week, I made my first accompaniment trip to spend three days with an isolated family of the Peace Community. They are the only community members in their area, and they are often surrounded by the armed actors who move throughout the region. Our journey entailed walking for three hours over a giant hill (or what we Floridians call a mountain) and through a good amount of mud to arrive at a simple farmhouse in a gorgeous valley. As usual, the picturesque Colombian landscape contrasted sharply with the family’s grave analysis of the movements of nearby paramilitaries and their recent gains in territory.
While there, I had the opportunity to interview the family and the Peace Community member who traveled with us and talked about their lives, the importance of the community, and the power of accompaniment. Each of them has endured several displacements from their farms because of threats by armed groups. They have each lived through the murders of one or more of their children at the hands of paramilitaries. Speaking with them about their participation in the Peace Community and their faith in the power of non-violence and solidarity was a great inspiration for me and encouragement in my work. I hope that as you read their words, you too will find sparks of inspiration and an impetus to continue supporting their vision of peace.
With love, solidarity, and several fresh bug bites,
After sharing a little about their lives and the many displacements and hardships they have faced, Doña H, Don M, and Don A were kind enough to answer the following questions.
Can you talk a little about the period of time when you first joined the Peace Community, and what it was like?
Don A: Before the actual founding of the Peace Community in 1997, several members were already working with campesinos [subsistence farmer] to help them avoid being displaced from their land. When we formed the Peace Community and signed the declaration committing ourselves as members, many people had already left out of fear. Those of us who stayed came together in San José, where there was nothing at the time. The guerrillas and paramilitaries clashed often, and there was combat that continued for 15 days straight. The army and paramilitaries accused us of being with the guerrillas. One didn’t leave the community alone—those who ventured out alone were killed. Little by little we organized ourselves, and we went out to work the land all together in groups of 100 or 200 people. We all kept track of each other as we worked. In that time we had the accompaniment of Eduar [one of the community’s founders] and the Poor Clares nuns.
Don M: In 1998, when we arrived to San Jose after displacing, it was a very difficult time. There had been several massacres, and there was a paramilitary checkpoint between the main town and the Peace Community. As people tried to enter from town on the chivero [public transport], the paramilitaries told anyone who appeared on their list to get off, and they killed them. The army was telling people, “You don’t want to get involved in the Peace Community, because we are going to kill them. The days of the Peace Community are numbered.” People would come to us asking, “Is it true that the Peace Community is going to come to an end?” We told them, “For the Peace Community to come to an end, they have to kill all of us, because the Peace Community will not go away.” Three years later when the time came to reaffirm the declaration of the Peace Community, these conversations came up again. We answered, “While the war persists, the Community will continue. For the community to come to an end would mean that everything has arrived to a state of peace, that there is no longer a war.”
What are some of the difficulties living in a conflict zone?
Doña H: The constant abuses against the civilian population, especially on the part of the paramilitaries. They have no respect for campesinos and our rights.
If we don’t resist, the paramilitaries will gain control of our lands. We will have to displace again like we did before. There has not been a moment when there were no abuses of the civilian population. The most difficult part is displacement from one’s land and one’s home. You leave behind the house you have built, the crops, the animals, everything. Leaving everything behind means terrible suffering for us. You arrive at a town with nothing, and have to start from scratch.
United, we resist and we remain here. We stay here with a faith in the Peace Community, in your accompaniment, and in your support here and internationally.
Don A: The difficulty of living in a conflict zone is, for example, that you never know when you might encounter and have problems with the guerrillas or paramilitaries. It is very difficult for a campesino to simply work, knowing that when you go out to work your land, combat could occur in any moment. People live with fear.
Don M: In this area recently, above all the presence of the paramilitaries close by makes one nervous. One never knows, “When are they going to change their mood with the people here?” There will come a time when they pressure us to collaborate, and those who don’t collaborate will be accused of being with the guerrillas. It’s very difficult for the people who are here working the land. We are going to see intense repression as they pressure people to collaborate.
The solution is international accompaniment. The paramilitaries always show respect when there are international accompaniers present. When there is no accompaniment, they become aggressive. In order to be able to continue working here, we need this accompaniment. By any other method, it would be very difficult.
For you, what is the beauty of life in the campo? [Note: Campo, meaning “the countryside,” also connotes Latin American poor farmers’ way of life and subsistence.]
Don A: For us, the campo is very important. City people feel content looking at nature. We, on the other hand, value the campo in a deeper way. It is a very clean way of life. Most of what we grow here is organic. Living one’s entire life in the campo, the campesino is capable of producing everything he needs. This is the wish of the campesino: That you respect me so that I can work, that you leave me in peace. ¡El campo es bueno! I was born in the campo, I’ll die in the campo. [Laughing] When I die, it will be here for someone else to work.
Doña H: Our lands are very productive. We need very little from the outside, from the State. These lands are very rich, and the products are rich—the rice, plantains, every type of vegetable. For a campesino, it is difficult to live in the city. The most important thing for us is to be on our land where we know how to live very well. We have everything we need, and we live a very healthy life here. Before we were displaced, we had cattle, pigs, everything. When we returned, we began working again, and we have succeeded in building up our farm again. Once again we have rice, beans, everything we need, and this is very important for us.
Don M: The beauty of living in the campo—one can cultivate what one needs. If I leave to live in town, I have no choice but to buy everything. It is necessary to have money to survive, and sometimes there is no work. Living here in the campo, there are very few things you have to buy—for example oil, salt, some vegetables. The rest, one can produce here. [And this family really does produce everything—rice, corn, beans, milk, cheese, eggs, bananas, plantains, vegetables, herbs, pork, beef, chicken, and the list goes on. The closest town and source of electricity is 3 hours away walking or on horseback.]
Can you explain some of the difficulties of displacement (because of violence or other pressure)?
Don M: When I was displaced by paramilitaries and forced to find work in another area as a day laborer, I wasn’t able to maintain my family. First, because the wages are very poor, and second, because there is little work. Living in the city, you have to have money. If there is no work, you have to ask for charity, or you don’t know what else to do.
The situation makes it so that you have to live in the mountains, on land you can cultivate. Anyone who is living in this land is here because they like to work.
Another thing one can see is that there is danger everywhere—in town they will also kill a person. Sometimes things become more complicated in town than “in the mountains.” In the town you have to buy everything, even the water. Here, you can plant what you want. The day you want to rest, you rest. In town, you live by the orders of others.
What are your thoughts about the importance of the Peace Community in this zone?
Doña H: We are maintaining the struggle. If everyone in this vereda [rural community, including people’s homes and farms] knew the importance of the Community, we would all unite. In this vereda it is very difficult, because we are only one family belonging to the Peace Community. We trust in the other veredas of the Peace Community, and we continue on because the Community is important. With the three armed groups moving in this area, the guerrillas, the army, and the paramilitaries, we are always at risk. Each group knows that simply by stopping at our door and asking the whereabouts of someone, they are involving us in the war.
When you accompaniers are not here, we feel very alone, with a real threat very close by. The paramilitaries speak very badly of us who are members. In this vereda, we are the only stone in the shoe for them, the only nuisance here. We express what we think. Your accompaniment is very important for us. We love you a lot, and we would like you to be here for more time with us. We are here with confidence because we know you are always ready to respond to us.
How do you feel when you think about the international support you have and the many people throughout the world who actively follow the news of the Peace Community, your successes, and the threats that you face?
Don M: This support is very important for us. This network and the international accompaniment makes one feel safer. The paramilitaries harass Peace Community members when we are here alone. It makes one anxious knowing the paramilitaries can arrive in any moment.
In this area, other people who are not members of the Peace Community don’t say anything. There is impunity amongst the people. The paramilitaries can arrive from their base nearby, kill a campesino, and the family says nothing. There is a law of silence. They have to stay quiet, because they have no support network.
Because of this, our support network is very important. It gives us the power to denounce at a national and international level. This is the strength of the Peace Community. Any other way, there is nothing—we have to denounce their acts. If we stay quiet, this is what they want.
Doña H: We feel a great sense of pride. With our resistance and our way of organizing ourselves, we have made ourselves important for other countries. We have the support of people who feel the urgent need that we have, and who feel what we feel. And I know that for many, although they are far away, in their minds they suffer along with us what we suffer. This support makes us feel that it is worth the struggle to continue moving forward. Although they are far away, they have love for us. Although far away, in the mind, we are united.
Is there anything more you would like to say to those throughout the world who are supporting the Peace Community?
Don A: Thank you, and may you keep supporting us. The campesino receives respect in this struggle because of your support.
Doña H: We hope and we trust in your countries, and that you feel our need as campesinos of the Peace Community. With your support, we are much stronger in our resistance.