Friday, January 25, 2008

A Comission of Solidarity

Along with the holidays, December brought much tension to the region of Urabá. Traditionally the end of the year is always a period in which the violence in the region increases. Lately, the Peace Community has also been concerned about the widespread rearming of paramilitary groups in the region. As one Peace Community member said, “This strong presence of paramilitary groups brings much hostility in the zone, making peasants feel unsafe and threatened.”

In order to make more visible the solidarity with fellow campesinos in outlying villages where the presence of paramilitary groups is known to be stronger than state forces, the Peace Community organized a commission on the 18th of December to Nueva Antioquia. This is one of those villages known for having a strong paramilitary presence and where campesinos feel highly threatened and at-risk of displacement. In November and December, five civilians where killed despite the fact that both the army and the police have a permanent presence in the region. This village is located outside the urban limits of the coastal city of Turbo (about 30 minutes north of Apartado).

Members of the Peace Community asked FOR to accompany the commission of about 20 civilians. Peace Brigades International and two observers also accompanied the commission from MAPP-OEA (Mission to Support the Peace Process of the Organization of American States). Given that the MAPP-OEA has been leading a nation-wide project that is responsible for observing and documenting paramilitary demobilization and the rearming of these illegal groups, their presence was perfect for the occasion.

On Tuesday morning, fellow FOR peace team member Kevin and I got up really early to pack our bags with all the basic supplies needed for the long walk across the green mountains. We were warned that it was going to be a total of three days from La Union to Nueva Antioquia and back. So we packed our hammocks, water filter, change of clothes, snacks and put on our long socks and rubber boots. We left La Union around 11am with a large group of community members of all ages, the MAPP-OEA observers, and about eight horses and mules that were carrying food and supplies. The first two hours challenged my physical endurance since it was mostly uphill. The path was mostly dry but there were many small chunks of mud mixed with horse poop and water. We walked across cornfields, cacao trees, and through places where the humidity is trapped between the trees and plants that give shape to the isolated jungle.

We arrived dehydrated and hungry to La Esperanza around 6pm. Some members of the group organized themselves in a corner of the empty house that is used as a kitchen and prepared our very common rural Colombian dinner: white rice with tuna. Tired, cold, and in awe of the beautiful clear night sky we sat on the front porch to listen to Community members explain the next day’s plan of action and the concerns they had for their safety. We would leave at 8am for Nueva Antioquia the next morning. It was projected to be a four-hour walk with the blazing sun over our heads. The more I thought about the long walk that awaited us, the more anxious I got. I was unable to sleep because of the cold temperature and with all the dogs barking, I just kept turning side to side wondering if we were going to run into any illegal armed groups that operate in the area.

We got up early the next morning, had a cup of panela and immediately started the walk towards Nueva Antioquia. The goal was to get there early so that we could get back to La Esperanza with the sun still out. We had walked and sweated for a good three hours when we finally arrived at a point where we crossed the river to a settlement known as Playa Larga. As we were crossing, we noticed that there was a camouflaged uniform over a large rock with a vest and a small backpack. When we turned to our left we saw that there were two individuals standing over the river. One of them was bathing while the other one in full army-style uniform and holding an AK-47 in a way that seemed like he was keeping guard.

The MAPP-OEA observers approached the two unidentified men and after they introduced the reason for their presence in Colombia, asked the uniformed men who they were. According to the MAPP-OEA, the unidentified individuals responded that they were part of the 17th Brigade of the Colombian Army. Nonetheless, they were unable to indicate which battalion they were part of because “they forgot.” And the usual battalion patch on the sleeve of the uniform was oddly absent from their uniforms. This caused great suspicion in the Peace Community’s eyes: how is it that members of the 17th brigade cannot identify which battalion they are part of, and where was the required battalion patch on their sleeve? Why were these two men alone and not with a larger more visible troop of soldiers if they were indeed with the 17th Brigade? The Peace Community believes that these two men were part of the larger group of paramilitaries that are operating in Nueva Antioquia. Urabá continues to be a zone of constant conflict because of the presence of the FARC, the continuous drug trafficking that takes place, and the fact that the state forces are still trying to gain control over certain strategic territories. One can assume that troops would normally travel in large groups to increase their security because of the probability of conflict at any given time. This leads me to agree with the community's assessment; If these men are part of the illegal armed group of paramilitaries that according to the Peace Community operate and have a strong control in that zone, wouldn’t they feel forced to say that they were part of the 17th brigade to the MAPP-OEA?

In order to understand why the Peace Community feels it is important to make visible the threats posed to the civilian population by illegal armed groups, one must consider the context of Urabá, the history of paramilitary groups in the zone and the territorial power that campesinos say paramilitaries are gaining. These types of commissions, these visible acts of solidarity are one way in which the civilian population aims to prevent killings and displacements before they happen.

We made it back to La Esperanza that same afternoon right before sunset. The commission spoke with a few public officials who had offered very limited information, but we felt that it was still important for them to know that we as extranjeros (foreigners) were in the area. The next morning we headed back to La Union ever so tired but feeling relieved that everyone in the commission made it back safe through the ups and downs of the Urabá mountains.