San José de Apartadó, located in Colombia’s northern region of Urabá, is one of many communities in Colombia to take an extraordinary and nonviolent stand against war by refusing to support any armed actor. Despite continued risks and being forcibly displaced multiple times, the Community made the incredible decision to return to their land and actively struggle to remain on it. The Community has suffered terribly from political violence, mostly by paramilitary groups supported by the Colombian Army; however, they remain a principle obstacle to the paramilitary’s expansion of its violent project in the Urabá and Chocó regions.
“What I’ll miss of La Unión: The delicious organic food people share with us: beans, eggs, yucca (cassava), corn on the cob, avocados, plantains, and meat: locally-raised chicken, duck and beef, as well as my favorite, tatabra (wild boar hunted in the mountains). What I will miss the most: the people of the Peace Community…”
-Chris Courtheyn, former volunteer read more from Chris.
In 2001, FOR was requested to provide a permanent international presence and accompany this group of displaced farmers who had constituted themselves as a peace community. FOR fulfilled this request by setting up a team in early 2002. The peace community is made up of approximately 600 people. The establishment of the Peace Community is based on international humanitarian law that protects civilians from being involved in the armed conflict. The Inter-American Human Rights Court issued a ruling for protective measures of Peace Community members in 2000, and members of the U.S. Congress and European Parliament have issued at least six public letters in response to violations against the community, in one instance, the letter was signed by more than 50 Members of Congress. FOR is the only international accompaniment organization that provides a permanent, year-round presence within the peace community.
In the middle of the 1990s, at the climax of paramilitary violence, peasant farmers suffering repeated forced displacement sought ways to return to their homes and to escape the spiral of violence. Supported by the bishop of the Diocese of Apartadó (who was assassinated in 2002) and Jesuit priest Father Javier Giraldo, farmer families founded the Peace Community. The community is based on strict principles of nonviolence, and members of the armed groups are not allowed to enter the territory of the community. Community members do not carry weapons and refuse to give any kind of information to armed groups. Furthermore, community members must take part in community work. There are different kinds of working groups, e.g. on education, medical plants, agriculture, history of the community etc. The cultivation and consumption of drugs or alcohol is strictly forbidden.
Thus, the peace community offers a way to step out of the spiral of violence in the midst of war and to survive violence in dignity, without having to accede to pressure by illegal armed groups to join or at least to become an informant.
The Peace Community has paid a high price for its firm conviction: More than 180 members have been assassinated and members of the community suffered more than 900 human rights violations, including confiscation of farm animals, money and goods, forced displacement, rape, abduction, detention, threats and defamation. Most of the crimes were committed by paramilitaries in collaboration with or with the acceptance of the military. To a lesser degree, the guerrillas committed crimes against the Community.
Only two cases out of the more than 900 human rights violations were brought to court and resulted in a sentence, although the community has documented and reported each crime. This poor record reflects the overall situation in Colombia, where more than 90% of human rights violations remain in impunity.
The Peace Community belongs to one of the most vulnerable groups in Colombia: peasant farmers. With over 5 million forcibly displaced people (worldwide Colombia is the country with the highest number of internal refugees) it is clear that the fight over land is one of the main reasons of the on-going armed conflict in Colombia. Peasant farmers in Colombia have been the primary victims of the conflict; it is their land that each armed group wishes to control and which the government hopes to “develop” with foreign investment projects. Farmers find themselves in a precarious position, as there are so many interests in the land and resources they control by the sole fact that they live on the land.
The Peace Community is located in a highly militarized area with a strong presence of legal and illegal armed actors. Furthermore, the land is very fertile and the gulf of Urabá is an entry corridor for weapons to be smuggled into Colombia and where drugs are trafficked to Central America and the Caribbean and then up to the United States.
By insisting on their right to remain on their land, the members of the Peace Community highlight a way to non-violently resist the spiral of forced displacement leading into a miserable life in the slums of big cities and the accumulation of land and wealth that fuels the armed conflict. The Peace Community also gives an example of community building to other rural communities. By resisting in a nonviolent way, the Peace Community highlights that the aim of nonviolent resistance is not victory but justice.
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