Apartado, Colombia – Brigida Gonzalez knows Colombia’s conflict only too well.
In 2005, her 15-year-old daughter, Elisena, was murdered in her sleep by members of the Colombian Army’s 17th Brigade, who accused Elisena of joining the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a leftist rebel group that last year agreed to lay down arms after more than half a century of war.
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Gonzalez’s story is hardly unique.
“We have seen so many massacres,” Gonzalez told Al Jazeera. “They have chopped up and butchered our children like they were pigs, in front of our eyes.”
At 68 years old, she is one of the oldest surviving founders of the Comunidad de Paz de San Jose de Apartado (Peace Community of San Jose of Apartado).
Nestled in the conflict-stricken mountains towards the gulf of Uraba, the peace community looks like any other rural hamlet. The houses are basic, largely fashioned from gathered wood with a jerry-built electrical hook-up. Animals roam among the dirt paths separating the streets. Further into the luscious, green mountains that tower above the community’s heart, there are a few more isolated outposts that also bear the name Comunidad de Paz.
However, the village’s moniker belies its history, which has featured extreme violence committed by all combatants in Colombia’s civil war, chiefly owing to its strategic location for armed groups, and its declared neutrality.
Caught in the middle
Twenty years ago, 1,400 rural peasant farmers, including Gonzalez, set up the peace community having found themselves repeatedly terrorised by and subject to extortion from different armed groups in the region. Their goal was to provide a sanctuary from the war, where no one would collaborate or give information to the rebel armies such as the FARC, or to state forces and state-aligned paramilitaries. Since then, more than 200 members have been killed, often in horrific ways.
“Everyone here knows someone who was killed,” Jose Roviro Lopez, a young community leader told Al Jazeera, as he surveyed preparations for the community’s 20th anniversary on March 23. “It’s for that reason we want nothing to do with any of the war. It’s for that reason, 20 years on, that we are remembering what has happened to us.”
The community, which has received international plaudits for its attempts to safeguard civilians from the conflict, illustrates Colombia’s recent and bloody history, and how peasant farmers are most often the victims. Since the FARC took up arms against the state in 1964, more than 220,000 people have lost their lives, of whom 80 percent are civilians. Nearly seven million people have been displaced.
The FARC once held sway in the region surrounding the peace community. In the 1990s, when the FARC was strongest, anti-insurgent paramilitary groups emerged with the goal of flushing out the rebels and taking over their illegal activities, from cocaine smuggling to illegal gold mining. The paramilitaries often operated with the tacit approval of the state, and sometimes with active support. Civilians were caught in the middle.
The peace community’s declared neutrality has often drawn persecution from armed groups. Many in both Colombia’s armed forces and paramilitary groups have long accused rural peasants of collaborating with the FARC, and vice versa.
This mentality was most prevalent under the leadership of former president Alvaro Uribe, who led a brutal military campaign against the rebels which saw their numbers dwindle. FARC numbers fell from 16,000 to 7,000 during his term from 2002 to 2010, according to government estimates. However, human rights groups have long accused Uribe of grave abuses against civilians, including the use of paramilitary groups.
“Alvaro Uribe pursued a campaign built on the premise of ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’,” Javier Giraldo, a prominent Colombian Jesuit priest instrumental in setting up the peace community, told Al Jazeera on a previous visit in June last year. “The peace community felt that strategy.”
Uribe, in early 2005, accused members of the community of collaborating with the FARC. Paramilitaries arrived shortly afterwards and executed eight members of the community, including its leader Luis Eduardo Guerra, his wife, and their 11-year-old son.
In 2013, two generals were indicted for their role in the massacre. Colombian courts have investigated allegations of Uribe’s links to paramilitary groups, but no evidence of direct links has surfaced.
Ledis Arteaga Guerra, Luis Eduardo’s niece, lives in the community today. Before the community was set up, and nine years before her uncle’s murder, she was forced to flee her home when paramilitaries and the army torched it, accusing her mother of collaborating with the rebels. “It’s completely normal for us, from this zone, to have heard bombs and bullets in the night, and to have to hide or run,” she told Al Jazeera.
“It’s all they want – someone who lives by guns – is to kill,” she said. “And that’s what we want nothing to do with.”
A historic peace deal between the government and the FARC passed through congress last November, even after a previous deal was rejected in a national referendum.
“We have the unique opportunity to close this painful chapter in our history that has bereaved and afflicted millions of Colombians for half a century,” said President Juan Manuel Santos in a televised address to the nation in November.
Santos was awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring about peace.
Despite the FARC’s ongoing disarming and the demobilisation of paramilitary federation the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC, in 2006, residents fear the horrors of war are not yet consigned to the past.
Other armed groups are looking to expand their reach. Chief among these are the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, or AGC, a drug-trafficking group with AUC origins and a national reach.
Members of the AGC, eyeing up the region’s strategic proximity to both the Caribbean and the Pacific, have recently been threatening members of the community, showing up in jungle fatigues with the group’s insignia on the shoulder.
“The paramilitary presence is strong and it is bloody,” Lopez said, as he gave a short tour of the village, taking in a football pitch where they hold a weekly tournament. “Just a few weeks ago [the AGC] raped a girl in one of our hamlets.” That rape of a 13-year-old girl was carried out as a show of strength, intended to intimidate the community into subservience, according to Lopez. He said that men in AGC uniforms had also been taking photos of the community and painting graffiti on buildings nearby.
Communiques released by the community in February detailed a recent spate of attacks and threats. As well as the rape, the AGC and members of the military have threatened or attacked members of the community 23 times this year.
Leaders say that the AGC are now demanding an extortion payment of 50,000 Colombian pesos ($17.4) per head of cattle from peasants in the community’s more isolated outposts, a common money-maker among armed groups in Colombia.
The same communiques alleged that the military in the region was aware of the AGC’s presence and actions, and had chosen not to act.
The military and the government did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment about these accusations and the threats the community says it is facing.
“Now that the FARC guerrillas are demobilising, what is the qualification to continue such persecution? In case the human damage we have suffered for more than 20 years has not been enough?” one statement from the community asked.
‘How can we call this peace?’
Despite historical bloodshed and current intimidation, residents continue their daily lives. They live under a number of self-imposed rules, including the prohibition of alcohol and collaboration with armed groups. Many farm cacao, which is used for chocolate bars sold in Bogota and soap sold worldwide. Others are in charge of tending to livestock, working in small stores serving the residents, or repairing clothing. Children kick footballs around while dodging household chores.
A more macabre project is also underway. The community, which began as an untended field, never had a cemetery in which to bury the hundreds of people massacred since its inception 20 years ago. As a result, the remains that weren’t thrown in rivers or disappeared ended up in a mass grave in the centre of the community, next to a recently erected brick cupula. Members of the community, overseen by Giraldo, are now digging up the remains and transferring them to individual above-ground graves, a job that started a year ago.
“We don’t work with the Attorney General’s office [the state body responsible for the identification and excavation of mass graves],” Lopez, the young community leader, said. “This is something we do ourselves.”
Steadfastness and neutrality in the face of such brutality led the intellectual Noam Chomsky to write of the community that “there is no better symbol of nonviolent struggle, and of hope, in a world tortured by violence and repression”.
While residents are determined to move on with their lives, the memories of 20 years of violence and suffering, coupled with fears of what might come next, are omnipresent.
“The mood here is very tense with these threats” Gonzalez said. “But it honestly fills me with great love that we are able to honour 20 years of survival here.”
Gonzalez, who has suffered the conflict first hand for most of her life, says she has learned that lasting peace is something that can’t be signed between leaders.
“Peace isn’t built with words, it’s built with facts. When children are dying or threatened, how can we call this peace?”