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25 February 2016
This was the third time I had accompanied the commemoration of the massacre. Every year, the campesino farmers from the eleven different settlements of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, which are scattered across the Abibe mountain range, the Northern-most tip of the Western chain of the Andes, travel by foot and by mule over steep and muddy mountain paths to Mulatos, a hamlet where the Community have built a settlement that they named: the ‘Peace Village of Luis Eduardo Guerra’.
Father Javier Giraldo gives a speech in the memorial at La Resbalosa
Eleven years ago, on 21st February 2005, paramilitaries together with soldiers from the Colombian army massacred eight people in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, in the hamlets of Mulatos and La Resbalosa, including one of their most important leaders, Luis Eduardo Guerra, and three children, among them an eighteen-month old boy who was chopped into pieces with a machete.
Since its foundation in 1997, the Peace Community had suffered assassinations, forced displacement, threats and many other violations, but this massacre was the last straw. No longer trusting in the power and the will of the State to protect them, but rather believing that there was a deliberate plan to wipe them out, they broke off all relations with the Colombian government. Since then, they have focused on building their community to be strong internally, based on values of participation, solidarity, social justice and a more equal redistribution of resources. They view the peace process in Havana with suspicion, as they view everything that the Colombian State does. What is important for them is their own grassroots peace-building process, of which an essential part is the annual commemoration of the 2005 massacre, one of the most important moments in their calendar.
We left the settlement of San Josecito on 18th February. With one hundred or more members coming together from distant hamlets, they take the opportunity to hold a two-day general assembly before the commemoration itself. The walk over the mountains under the tropical sun is a kind of pilgrimage. We sweat, we get tired, we take a break at the top of a hill to eat lunch, and we gaze over the valleys covered in pristine virgin forest, interspersed with clearings where the campesinos graze cattle and farm subsistence crops. After seven hours, we arrive at Mulatos. At national level, the National Centre for Historical Memory is in charge of building a memory museum to enshrine the plurality of experiences of the victims of the armed conflict. Here, by contrast, the Peace Community is performing their memory, and creating their own spatiality which reflects their relationship to their territory, and the fact that different places on their map are haunted by a painful past.
Community members arriving at La Resbalosa from Mulatos
The inhabitants of the Peace Village, Gildardo Tuberquia and his family, have set up a communal kitchen outside their house where every year, Community members take turns to cook together for everyone in teams of three or four. On our arrival, hot, dirty and exhausted, we were served rice with dark red beans that Gildardo had recently harvested. After a shower from a bucket, we fell asleep in hammocks strung up in the Peace Village’s library.
For the next two days, the Community held their general assembly, to analyse the situation of the conflict and take decisions about their organisational process. Then on the 21st, we started the day early at the little chapel they have built on the exact spot where they had found the bodies of Luis Eduardo, his seventeen-year old partner Bellanira and their 11-year-old son Deyner, whose head had been chopped off and thrown into the nearby River of Mulatos. Father Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest who has accompanied the Community since their foundation in 1997, held a mass at 7.30am, the approximate hour of their deaths.
The mass began with a tape-recording of Luis Eduardo speaking in an interview with a German journalist only fourteen months after the Community was founded. Later, community member Ramiro told me that he had felt almost moved to tears – “it was like having him there in front of me again”. Luis Eduardo’s speech told the story of the Peace Community’s beginnings: the signing of a declaration of neutrality on 23rd March 1997 in the presence of international observers, followed by military and paramilitary operations that began on 28th March and spread across the whole region, forcing all the campesino families to leave. “They burned houses, they stole cattle, and they killed entire families”. His voice rang out clear on the recording.
The displaced families arrived in the town of San José de Apartadó. There they began the organisational process that sowed the seeds of what they are today. They held meetings and talked about what to do; they created working groups and committees; NGOs came and arranged workshops on human rights and international humanitarian law; they began to talk about what it meant to call yourself a ‘peace community’. As Luis Eduardo said, “We also began to defeat our fear”.
The ceremony in the small chapel at Mulatos
The recording came to an abrupt end. There was a pause. A strong smell of cimarrón, wild coriander, filled the warm, morning air, and the only sound was the rustle of grass as some cows ambled across the clearing. Then Father Giraldo spoke. He explained that it was important for the new generations to learn about the origins of the Community, as well as the massacre, and for those who had lived through it all to recall those they had lost, and renew their commitment to the struggle.
“This is a Community that aims to satisfy everyone’s basic needs, and ensure that every member has access to land that they can grow things on, and that everyone has enough to eat and a roof over their head. It is a project that goes against the grain of the rest of society, which is based on values of individualism and exclusion. That is why it is important to remember how this project started. We must remember how valuable what we have built is, and reaffirm our commitment to constantly improve it. The chances of a real peace in Colombia are distant and tenuous. We must remember that we build our own peace, day by day.”
He then performed a modest Eucharist, and the ceremony finished with a group of children who lived in Mulatos singing a song they had written about peace, led by their teacher, Community member Luis.
When children are viewed as a threat
We then all flocked to the communal kitchen and queued for platefuls of rice, lentils and boiled cassava. After breakfast, we set out to walk to the settlement of La Resbalosa, an hour’s steep climb up a mountain through forest and farmland, where the remaining five victims had been killed on the same day in 2005, some hours later: Alfonso Bolívar, his partner Sandra, their five-year old daughter Natalia, and their eighteen-month old son, Santiago, together with a farm worker, Alejandro.
The same troop of paramilitaries and soldiers, after killing Luis Eduardo and his family, had gone up this same path to La Resbalosa and found Bolívar’s family in his little hut. One demobilised paramilitary who participated in the massacre later gave testimony in which he said, “The children were under the bed. The little girl was very sweet, and the little boy was curious. We suggested to the commanders that we should leave them in a nearby house, but they said that they were a threat, they would become guerrilleros in the future.”
All five bodies were chopped up into pieces and placed in two shallow graves that the troops dug in a grove of cacao (cocoa) trees a little way from the house. They covered the bloody remains with empty cocoa husks, and that was how the Community found them a couple of days later.
Everyone was cheerful on their walk up to La Resbalosa. It was a beautiful day, the path was not too muddy, and although the sun was warming up, there was enough shade from the forest to cool us on our journey. On arrival, Julio and Uberli, Community members who live on top of the hill and whose wooden house looks out across the valley towards the department of Córdoba, had prepared a huge barrel of lemonade sweetened with panela, sugar cane, which grows plentifully in La Resbalosa. Everyone drank and rested for a while before Father Giraldo led us to the spot where the dismembered bodies had been found, where the Community has built a small memorial, and planted a baby cacao tree.
We sang some psalms, and Father Giraldo gave a small speech about the children. “What does it mean to kill children?” he asked us to consider. I looked around me, at the dozens of children that were sitting on the ground with their parents, many of whom I have seen grow over the four and a half years that I have been visiting the Community. It is chilling for us to confront this brutality, this seeming inhumanity. And yet acts like these have occurred all over the country, during decades of violence.
We walked the hour or so back to Mulatos. The Community members seemed contented. Occasionally someone mentioned how beautiful Father Giraldo’s speech was – but mostly they joked and laughed, and talked of other things. But this is not to underestimate the emotional importance of what had just happened. The unsaid was there, their collective identity is reconfirmed with each commemoration, they remember their purpose, their historical memory is strengthened, they feel a sense of togetherness. The commemoration was over, until next year.
Making sense of the past
The Peace Community have good reasons to remain sceptical about the deal that will be brokered in Havana, especially in the region of Urabá, where economic interests in the land combine with local criminal power structures. But peace does not just depend on the ending of the conflict between FARC and the government; all society has to play a part, and the role in peace-building of creating and keeping alive historical memory is crucial. But with so many atrocities, and so many different local tragedies which seem to compete for validity, who gets to write and re-write the past? And with the brutality that communities like the Peace Community of San José have suffered, how is Colombia to make sense of the past, when the contemplation of the killing and quartering of children and babies evades all attempts to impose logic or interpretations?
These are big questions with national transcendence which will be played out for generations in different local scenarios, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations in Havana. The Peace Community’s commemoration is a physical enactment of memory as something that is embedded in space as well as in time, and is also a ritual that is important for renewing community bonds. Above all, it is their own, autonomous way of doing things; it is their way of ascribing dignity and sense to the non-sense of their violent past. And if they can do so, having suffered so much, then surely, the rest of Colombia also has a chance.
Gwen Burnyeat is a British anthropologist and writer doing postgraduate research and teaching in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar. She has worked in Colombia on and off for six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International in the Urabá region. As well as academic articles she also writes short fiction, and is currently producing a documentary called ‘Chocolate of Peace’.