In rural Colombia, choosing to follow a path of peace is not an easy option. Those who, in choosing such a path, declare neutrality in the conflict are labelled as enemies by the followers of a “with us or against us” logic. However, when those declaring their commitment to peace are driven by the conviction that a new reality is not only necessary but essential, there is no deviation from that path, regardless of the consequences. This has been the story for the San José de Apartadó Peace Community.
In 1997, in response to a series of atrocities against the civilian population, the people of San José de Apartadó took the decision to resist. Without arms, without violence, but a resistance based on a vision to create a new reality in which a community could live in peace. From its very first days, the process has been aggressively rejected – most notably from the Colombian state itself. However, and in spite of the often unimaginable grief experienced during the 14 year process, the Peace Community continues, firm in its conviction that silent suffering is not the path.
The creation of a peace community
On the 23 March 1997 in the small village of San José, in the municipality of Apartadó, a 'Peace Community' was declared. Its members, rural farmers forcibly displaced from their homes in San José, declared themselves neutral towards all armed actors involved in the conflict – whether guerrilla groups, paramilitaries or state forces. With this decision the Peace Community sought a solution to the unrelenting persecution they suffered being deliberately involved in the armed conflict – most notably under accusations of collaborating with the guerilla forces operating in the region.
In June and July 1996, more than 800 rural farmers left their homes and camped out in a sports hall to demand an end to the crimes being committed against them. In spite of the agreements reached between state institutions and the rural farmer population, the months that followed the protest saw a systematic campaign to wipe out the community’s leaders. In the course of 1996 the founding member of the village was killed and four more leaders were massacred in an operation which, according to various witness reports, was carried out by members of the army. With another massacre carried out in February 1997 killing four more, the Peace Community was founded in the hope that the neutrality of the community would be respected, as dictated under international humanitarian law, and as such the bloodshed would end.
The creation of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community was a proposal offering an alternative way of life. This alternative is founded on the principle of 'community', conscious always of the impact that our actions will have on others. This philosophy inevitably demands a respect for the principle of plurality and difference. Indeed people from all races and all political backgrounds are welcome in the Peace Community. There is also a specific emphasis on the peaceful resolution of conflicts; the promotion of dialogue which seeks collective solutions prioritising the well-being of all those involved.
The persecution of a peace community
With around 1,200 members, the San José de Apartadó Peace Community recently completed its 14th year. 14 years full of suffering. Located in the region of Urabá, San José is situated in a paramilitary stronghold. The paramilitaries, armed groups initially formed to protect large land holders and business interests, unified in 1997 under the banner of the 'Autodefensas unidas de Colombia' (AUC). Heavily involved in the drugs trade, the paramilitaries have been responsible for focused and deliberate persecution of the civilian population. Collaboration with state institutions has been widespread and systematic. Although officially demobilised, the paramilitary forces still enjoy a heavy presence across Colombia, and in Urabá particularly.
Since its creation, almost 200 members of the Peace Community have been killed. Immediately after the formation of the Peace Community, the reaction from the army and paramilitary units was made clear. Army helicopters bombed from above as members of the Community were told that if they did not leave they would be killed, and three days after its creation a series of murders were carried out. With the Peace Community declared only days before, the rural farmers were forced to leave their land as they grouped together in a nearby village centre. On numerous occasions the community had to live with paramilitary checkpoints where many were disappeared or killed. The army consistently refused to recognise their existence. Over the last 14 years, the Peace Community has continued to suffer at the hands of the army and the paramilitaries. The most notable massacre took place in 2005 when eight people were killed by members of the Colombian army with logistical support from paramilitaries. The Community has been forcibly displaced on numerous occasions - between 2003 and 2004 on seven occasions. There are also reports that three members of the Peace Community have been raped by army soldiers. Indeed, the state has played a leading role in the persecution of this Peace Community. The neutrality of the Community and its decision to take an alternative path is seen as justification for persecution as those who do not collaborate with the army are seen as enemies.
The persecution continues
During 2011, the violence against the Peace Community has once again intensified. Once more the Peace Community has had to speak out against the crimes being experienced. In spite of the change of presidents and a new discourse that talks of a greater commitment to defend the rights of the civilian population, the realities being denounced by the San José de Apartadó Peace Community paint a very different picture.
On 22 March 2011 the Community suffered another murder at the hands of the paramilitaries. In the early hours of the evening, five minutes from a military checkpoint, two paramilitaries on a motorbike shot dead Bernardo Londoño, 27-years-old and an ex-member of the Peace Community. In the weeks leading up to the murder, the Community had released information to the authorities about threats by army members and paramilitaries. Nothing was done to protect the population. After the murder, the threats and violations have continued. Paramilitaries have threatened members of the community telling them that if they don’t leave they will suffer at the hands of operations being planned with the army, while the army has been destroying crops. One of the Community’s leaders was detained for two hours in an army checkpoint. He was insulted, accused of helping the guerrilla, and was told that if they see him again they will kill him.
The construction of an alternative continues
In the Peace Community the work goes on, the conviction is still strong, and the will to continue speaking out against the abuses remains.
Amidst this darkness, we continue believing in Life although we see ourselves besieged by Death … We know that with so much death, the hope of life appears to drown. But this is not the case, the opposite is true. It grows strongerRegardless of the costs, the San José de Apartadó Peace Community has shown that it will continue to resist and that it will continue on its path in the search of peace.