Hasan Dodwell from the International Peace Observatory (IPO) writes about his experiences with human rights accompaniment work in Colombia. 26 February, 2010.
After three days of travel we had almost arrived at our destination, the town of Teorama, in the department of Norte de Santander, in a region known as Catatumbo. I travelled there as part of my work conducting international accompaniment with the International Peace Observatory. There was to be held in Teorama the Second Assembly of the campesino (peasant farmer) association of Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT.
Catatumbo is an example, one of so many in the country, of the Colombian Contradiction. Catatumbo bears witness to unimaginable natural beauty - green, lush mountainsides, flowing rivers, and fruits never before seen. But on the other side of this contradiction no beauty is seen. Darkness reigns. Unimaginable human destruction. Perpetrated by humans against their fellow kind.
In April 1999 the paramilitaries arrived in Catatumbo. They arrived as part of a state-directed counter-insurgency strategy. A strategy aimed at taking control of this traditionally guerrilla administrated zone rich in natural resources. They arrived, list in hand, with the names of civilians who were to be killed. Not by chance, they would also become the new bosses of the abundant production of coca.
Until 2004 they remained. Ten-thousand left dead, 600 forcibly disappeared, 100,000 displaced; possessions robbed, homes burned, livelihoods destroyed. The people of Catatumbo left to suffer. Whole communities killed or forced to disappear. And the protection from the state? It never arrived. In La Gabarra, a small 'town' in the north of Catatumbo, the paramilitaries based themselves. They marked their arrival with a series of now infamous massacres. They passed Police checkpoints. Nothing. In the town itself there is an army base. Nothing. The Commander of the Police force, Capitan Gutiérrez was later spotted amongst demobilising paramiltary forces, and the commanding officer from the base, Capitan Luís Fernando Campuzano, is currently serving a prison sentence for his paramilitary connections.
Although today there may appear, and indeed there is, justice on certain levels, the inseparable nature of the paramilitaries and the state lives on. Numerous 'campesinos' who have begun returning in small numbers, told me during my time in Catatumbo that whilst the paramilitaries were no longer present as they were for those five torturous years, many had simply changed uniform. Rather than unofficially, they were now working for the state on an official basis. The very same people operating as paramilitaries were now seen dressed as soldiers. A somewhat debatable interpretation of justice.
We spent a night in La Gabarra on our way to our initial destination, a humanitarian refuge set up several months ago in Caño Tomas, the remote north of Catatumbo, close to Rio de Oro at the Venezuelan border. The refuge was setup by ASCAMCAT as an answer to the years of violence, intimidation and displacement suffered by the campesino population.
The road to the refuge that we would navigate the next morning was a stark reminder of the lack of any state presence in the region: a mixture of mud, clay and water, even calling it a road is somewhat ridiculous.
We entered the refuge, marked with a symbol declaring the zone arms free. Our brief, under the title of international accompaniment, is to see that human rights and the international humanitarian laws are respected - fundamentally our presence and network of international contacts will result in heavier consequences if armed groups break them. This offers a peaceful form of protection. I could without doubt feel, as well as see, the difference our presence made to the campesinos.
To walk along from the entrance of the refuge to the exit would take close to five minutes. There are various building constructions inside the camp. All from wood. And all constructed by the various campesinos involved in this project of active peaceful resistance. A kitchen where every day one person is in charge of maintaining the fire, cooking and serving the meals. There are two spaces for meetings and workshops. Trees of cacao complete the scenery.
After almost two weeks in the refuge it was time to set off for Teorama where the assembly was to take place. We set off on a seven hour journey in canoe, picking up campesinos from the various veredas (small villages) on the way.
The atmosphere on the boat kept the journey short. One campesino in particular kept everyone entertained with an endless series of jokes. He spoke so fast I did not get a single one. As much as I tried, I was left silent as everyone exploded in laughter. The sun was in extremely combative mood. But I was well protected and avoided even the slightest burn. The moon guided us to our destination where we would spend the night; a small farm of one of the people. Minutes after arriving everyone had set up camp. Some in hammocks, some on mattresses, all brought with us from our various start points. We were a little over 20 in total.
The next morning, after a short yet tiring walk, we arrived at a road where we found a bus to take us to Teorama. It was during this journey that I would experience my first encounters with Colombian officials in my role offering international accompaniment. A role with an impact and utility, that once seen in practice, both depresses and uplifts. The very fact that it works is the cause of this contradiction. No moral logic suggests that it should work. Why should the presence of an 'international' make any difference at all? But the fact is, it does.
We were arriving to Teorama late. It was already dark, and we still had to pass a checkpoint that as a norm enforced a curfew on vehicles passing after 6pm. We waited for a second bus to catch up with us so we could accompany both buses through the check-point. My colleague and I prepared ourselves (the third was now on the bus behind). Everyone was tired after the long journey, no one wanted a long hold-up. Much more important to avoid was any form of intimidation such as heavy questioning, searching, or the creation of a list registering the campesinos. After struggling up a large hill we came to the checkpoint. A soldier stood in front of the lead bus and signalled it to stop (we had during the journey passed through several checkpoints where, after introducing ourselves as internationals and explaining where we were going, we continued without problem. This one was likely to be more intense due to the hour). My colleague and I, as is the norm, immediately got off the bus to talk to the soldier. We explained the situation; the length of the journey, the destination, the problems of the road and the need to pass. There was some basic questioning and after a call to the commanding officer we were told we could continue. A successful encounter.
Before getting back onto the bus I took a moment to take in my surroundings. Darkness. A military checkpoint. Soldiers, rifles in hand. Two buses full of campesinos carrying years of intimidation. And us 'internationals', with our jackets declaring our presence, standing in the road, right in the middle of it all.