Saturday, March 15, 2008

Returning: The Constant Hope

Retorno: the materializing of the individual and/or community member’s—who were forced to displace due to violence, threats, mega-projects, massacres, fear, etc.—wish to return to the home and/or land. A retorno is what most displaced people aspire, wish for, and hope to experience in the near future. But for most of them a retorno is a highly unlikely possibility. Those who wish to return have to face a series of complex factors that conglomerate to build a great wall of bureaucracy in front of their greatest desire. Thus, their most desired wish transforms into a battle of perseverance and hope- not giving up and hoping that somehow they can manage to return “home”. In some cases, however, barriers that prevent individuals extend beyond bureaucratic battles. There are many families that fear for their safety and although they wish to return to their land, the high levels of violence that forced them to abandon their homes to begin with, still remain as vivid memories in their mind. What they fear is a de´javu: the repetition of death, violence, and threats; they fear reliving the trauma of leaving their home behind again. Not limited to this, other displaced families have discovered that they no longer have a home to return to. These families face the dilemma of having to prove that they are the legitimate owners of their land. Their land that is now repopulated and/or has become private property belonging to some foreign corporation that is probably in the hands of paramilitary groups. In most cases, these corporations seek to produce single-crop farming in rural areas and manage to “legally” take ownership of the land that was left behind by civilians who hoped to one day return.

Not surprising though, it is economic factors that greatly encumber families from returning to their land. These displaced families seldom have employment or social welfare assistance to maintain self-sustainable lifestyles and live with the bare minimum amount of goods. Most displaced persons who had to abruptly abandon their homes were forced to leave behind their material goods, crops, animals, clothes, furniture, tools, machinery, etc. The complex situation that most displaced families are forced to endure is made up of a combination of all of the above mentioned conditions that stand to hinder them from returning home; a home that is not far from them in geographical measurements, yet is fundamentally and practically unreachable.

Aside from strong will, tolerance, and a strong mind, planning for a retorno requires extensive commitment, effort, and resources which are apart from social and governmental entities that are willing to fund and support such process. How will household heads sustain their families, feed them from scratch? Who will assist them with purchasing seeds, tools, and machinery necessary for agricultural production? Who will guarantee that they will be able to have food while they are waiting for their harvest? How will government forces guarantee that these returning families will not be forced to displace again? As one displaced person put it, “even if we get support to plant our seeds and grow our crops, it takes weeks and months before we can eat those goods; in the meantime who will feed us and what if we are forced to leave again after working hard to reestablish ourselves?”

The Retorno to Mulatos
I remember my first conversation about a retorno when I first started volunteering with FOR and came to the Peace Community in March of last year. The idea of a retorno was one of the reoccurring themes discussed as part of the physical accompaniment that we would be taking part in. The retorno to the hamlet (vereda) of Mulatos was a subject that had great significance for the members of the Peace Community. It was in Mulatos where in 2005 a massacre took place and 8 people were assassinated:
(see: One of the victims was Luis Eduardo Guerra, a highly recognized leader in the community. This unfortunate event brought much fear to the civilian population and families were forced to displace, fearing that they too would end up killed by the paramilitaries. For the Peace Community, the massacre denoted that the civilian population continued to be a military target and that it was unsafe for families to continue working and living in the more isolated settlements of San Jose. The Community also knew that many families had crops and property that could not be left for armed factors to make use of in their terrorizing rendezvous, so they never gave up the hope of one day being able to return to Mulatos.

This year, the Attorney General called for the investigation of 69 soldiers for their collaboration in the 2005 massacre Additionally, the captain of the Velez Battalion, Gordillo, is currently in jail facing accusations for participating in the massacre. The 17th Brigade, which has jurisdiction in the Urabá region of both Antioquia and Chocó, has a vast history of violence and has been excluded from receiving Plan Colombia funding due to the human rights violations attributed to their soldiers and Generals in the past such as General Rito de Alejo.
(see: What is astonishing is that it has taken the Colombian authorities and investigators almost three years to take action and incarcerate those accused of collaborating or directly participating in the 2005 massacre. The community, however, asks, “And what about all the hundreds of other cases of human rights violations that have not even been looked at?”

Last year, the community started planning a retorno to Mulatos. Nonetheless, as part of the government’s rural development and social assistance projects local city officials started promoting a retorno of their own. Last year local newspaper Urabá Hoy published that “2,000 persons were returning to Mulatos and that the state would be funding this return”. The truth is that this was a false statement. During their retorno campaign, officials bused into San Jose trucks full of people that were not from the San Jose region, took pictures of the multitude and published them in the local newspaper stating that all those families were going to be returning to San Jose and Mulatos. Nonetheless, at the end of the day—after the pictures were taken—the bus left San Jose and the 2,000 displaced persons were not seen again. Given this, the Peace Community did not want to support the state’s phony retorno or be perceived as if it were participating in the propaganda and false initiative. Instead of moving on with their plans, the Peace Community decided that it would be more appropriate to put their plans on hold.

A place called “home”
This last month, on the 21st of February, the Peace Community decided that they were ready to return to Mulatos. Seven families from the Peace Community were ready to once again make a living in the rich land of Mulatos. The Community decided that along with the retorno, they would also be commemorating the 2005 Massacre and honoring the memory of those who have been killed in their struggle to live in a context that seeks an alternative to the conflict in the region. Along with FOR and Peace Brigades International as physical accompaniers, delegates from Witness for Peace, Red-Italiana (Italian Support Group for Colombia), Tamera-a peace community in Portugal-, a Spanish journalist and Colombian researchers came to witness and offer their support to the Peace Community.

The mules and horses were loaded with the dozens of backpacks, hammocks, gallons of waters, and sacks full of rice, beans, and panela for the retorno. Community members had been planning this for many months and they were all excited to finally be able to materialize their goal of returning to Mulatos. For some of the campesinos (peasants, rural farmers), it was the first time they had returned in many years since some families displaced from the area in the 90’s due to the increasing levels of paramilitary violence in Urabá. For some of the youngsters it was the first time they were going to the much talked about Mulatos. It was nine in the morning and after putting on sun block, hats and rubber boots we all started to make our way up the mountain. The trail along the mountain path was a diverse and colorful one with people of all ages, sizes, and physical capacity. As some struggled to climb the steep mountains others suffered from unquenchable thirst, but all shared the same feeling of solidarity with the campesinos that did not break a sweat as they gracefully skipped stones and avoided mud paths. It was clear that their physical capacity is worthy of admiration, and the fact that they have to walk long distances in order to purchase goods or sell their crops is worthy of great respect. One after another, we continued up the mountain, across the river, the humid jungle-like tunnels of weeds and wild plants, the muddy terrain, the slippery downhill and the never-ending steepness of the Urabá Mountains. After eight hours we finally made it to Mulatos Medio, to the exact location where the bodies of Luis Eduardo, Beyanira, and the child were found. There was a small chapel built there in their honor. As people passed the chapel, it was hard not to think about the cruelty and injustice that ends up manifested in dismembered bodies and sends a force of fear upon communities. And it is admiration that one feels when witnessing a community that does not give up or surrender to the fear that is constantly at their doorstep.
The words of a Peace Community Member in memory of the 2005 Massacre:

On this day, we sadly commemorate the third anniversary of the massacre of our community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra, his son Deiner Andres Guerra Tuberquia, and Beyanira Areiza along with an entire family that always lived in unity: Alfonso Bolivar Tuberquia, Sandra Milena Muños Posso, a six year-old and 18month-old baby. This incident deeply affected our entire community, in particularly the loss of the three children: Deiner, Natalia, and Santiago. Three fully innocent children. What were they guilty of?…Nothing at all. They were just children, just like the very word child connotes: innocent. Deep sadness is what we all felt. Luis Eduardo was one of the founding members of the Peace Community. He resisted until the end, always maintaining neutrality, and defending our peace processes. He was a warrior, strong worker, honest, responsible, fair, and honorable. His death was a huge loss for our community because he was fully committed to our peace process. He was, always sure of himself and he gave his life to struggle for our community. He died with his head up high, proud that he was offering his life without betraying his community and being a great example for us to follow to continue to struggle for our community. I wrote this in honor of his memory. -Kelly Johana Asprilla Garzon, 12 year-old Peace Community Member

That night there was a spectacular lunar eclipse. It was almost symbolic for the occasion: the moonlight darkens for a moment, and in slow motion, it once again claims a space for its light as it gracefully illuminates the night sky. That night, the Peace Community members were living a moment of light after being forced to leave their land—they were finally returning to Mulatos. Although the fear for their safety is not something that could easily leave their mind, for a moment it seemed that the primary sentiment was that of joy with a dab of nostalgia.

La Resbalosa
The next day we walked for a couple of hours up another steep mountain to visit La Resbalosa. It was here that the other five people were killed in the massacre. The Peace Community had a ceremony to honor them, actively practicing the act of nourishing the memory of those victims of crimes against humanity. Preserving these stories is a way in which the Peace Community seeks to resist impunity from reigning in their consciousness.
In La Resbalosa there was a somewhat abandoned structure that had a scent of humidity and dust. This place was once upon a time a school. Today, it stands mostly empty, except for the graffiti on the walls and doors with anti-guerilla commentary and aggressive language. One of the messages reads: “Turn yourself in, Sonnovabitch guerilla¨ and “AUC is here”. The Peace Community hopes to once again open the doors to a classroom setting and find funding to educate those children who live in the most remote rural areas.

Going Back
After the second night in Mulatos it was decided that we were going back to San Josesito and La Union. It had rained the previous afternoon, and hammocks and floor mats were wet, people were hungry, dehydrated, constipated, or with cramps and diarrhea. In those settings, it is only campesinos that have the physical condition to adapt to conditions of limited resources in rural settings, while the foreigners have to face a series of uncomfortable symptoms. More so, the accompaniment was cut short because of last minute adjustments to the schedule. After breakfast the large crowd parted and we started the hike back on the same path that only a couple of nights before was dry and “easier” to walk on.

The same hills were waiting for us except that the previously down hills were now up hills and vice-versa. The forest green continued to mesmerize the naked eye and brown mud did not cease to tug at our boots each step of the way. I kept on trying to see if I recognized key points that would indicate how much farther we had to go…
After six hours and a shade of darker brown, we finally arrived back to San Josesito. Although my feet were swollen and I had blisters between my toes, it is hard to measure the growth that comes after experiencing the materializing of people’s hopes and aspirations, to be able to see ideas and visions come to life in a collective manner, and to understand one step closer the meaning of resistance, struggle, respect, and solidarity.