PBI Colombia would like to announce a call for applications to our 2019 Training Encounter for new field volunteers. Continue reading PBI Colombia Training: call for application
In La Concepción the children are made from different stuff, as the saying goes. They run without shoes, jump into the river which is full of life and climb the trees to find small green guavas which they chew, risking their teeth. Being with them is like instantly reconnecting with something that we have perhaps lost, and whose value is truly incalculable. It might seem like we are painting a caricature here, with that romanticism that has been all too often abused when describing community life. Nevertheless, as we stand here watching these cartwheels and children’s’ games in one of the only rainforests in the world, we cannot help but notice for the first time the beauty and rarity of this life which grows, sacred, in the ancestral lands of the river Naya; and we appreciate the deep courage of those who have been persecuted, stigmatised, disappeared or killed for defending this place. Their sons and daughters transmit a peaceful lack of worry that we scarcely recognise, but which the whole community continues to defend.
It is difficult to imagine that in this same place and during this same peace, just a few days earlier, violence reared its head. The attacks against the inhabitants of the Naya have never stopped and have meant that the water has not been able to wash away the community’s wounds. Here, in this same place where our gaze is lost in such beauty, other eyes have scanned this rich landscape, and have only seen goods that can be traded, or a strategic passing place. Who knows how many such eyes are dreaming right now about taking over this land, stealing the life and tranquillity from the river and the community.
Cradled by the murmuring water, it is almost impossible to think that since April, four people from the Naya Community Council have been violently disappeared, including one who was killed with a weapon belonging to the State. The perpetrators were hoping that the attack would sow terror in the people living along the Naya River. However, thanks to the perseverance of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz – CIJP) many more people within Colombia and internationally have heard about what happened here and have thwarted the intentions of the confessed murderers, giving the community one more reason to resist and defend their human rights.
PBI has raised awareness on these incidents and we have been able to stay close to the community accompanying the CIJP as part of our mandate to protect the working space of Colombian human rights defenders. Throughout this time, we have had the privilege of getting to know the defenders who run AINIThis group has been a key figure in their community in recent months, managing to prevent the attacks and disappearance of the four Naya leaders from destroying a social fabric as rich as the one that exists among the river’s inhabitants. We were also fortunate to meet many other social leaders from the communities, whose determination and commitment to their community never ceased to amaze us.
There have, however, been other voices who have accused the victims and community leaders of being criminals. For example, a video was broadcast by those responsible for the disappearances in which they confirmed that the community members had been executed. The inhabitants of the river basins are clear when they say that the disappeared and their families are victims. Several leaders from AINI told us that these attacks affect the whole community and are a result of the persecution they have faced because of their work defending the whole community’s rights.
The Naya river is immersed in the dynamics of the conflict in the pacific region, and is living through a worsening in this regional violence, which for social leaders and human rights defenders is reaching alarming levels according to organisations such as ‘Somos Defensores’, Indepaz and OHCHR. In their reports, these organisations describe an increase in killings and threats against human rights defenders and community leaders, especially those at the forefront of the implementation of the peace agreements. This is especially the case for work related to the substitution of illegal crops and land restitution, and unfortunately also affects environmental rights defenders.
In our work as international accompaniers and observers, we have found, as in other parts of the country, a courageous population, determined to demand the fulfilment of their rights, and who will not be silenced by violence. In a number of communities in the Naya region we have witnessed a collective human strength which has not given in when faced with the challenges and demands of the conflict. In response to threats ordering them to stay silent, the Nayan people have raised a white canvas sign that challenges all comers by clearly stating that this is a “place of refuge”, a “humanitarian territory” and is “exclusive to the civilian population”.
This action aims to counteract and prevent situations like the one that took place on 2 May, when heavily-armed men invaded the Juan Santos community. As a result, some 50 people were forcibly displaced to other neighbouring communities in search of refuge. Stories like this are repeated up and down the river, echoing the route of the armed actors who have historically controlled these waters under different guises: guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug-traffickers, up and down, up and down the river…
On our most recent visit to the Naya communities, the CIJP stop in each community to see how the inhabitants are and to let them know that a delegation from the Ombudsman’s Office is going to analyse and record their situations of confinement and displacement. During one of these stops, one man tells us that he had never seen a state official before reaching La Concepción, the last community in the Bajo Naya area, about four or five hours by boat from Buenaventura. In the middle of this jungle geography, the risks of attempting to take refuge inside homes can be as dangerous as being caught up in the armed confrontations between the various illegal actors, or between these actors and the security forces. “Here you live from day to day”, the man explains. “If we do not go out to work for just one day, we do not have what we need to live. But we are afraid of the armed men moving through the territory”. Never before has the famous phrase of being ‘between a rock and a hard place’ made so much sense to us: the choice is either dying of hunger, or being caught in the middle of armed confrontations.
Our last stop is in La Concepción. When we arrive there, we hear Afro-Nayan songs of resistance and peace, dancing out from the church where the community is meeting with State officials.
In the evening, Enrique Chimonja (Kike) from the CIJP meets with the community. The rain, which beats a deafening downpour onto the tin roof, does not stop the community from attending. Kike explains what humanitarian refuge areas are and how to make use of them. These ideas are newer to us than to the community. In April 2008, after army operations in the lower Naya region, the Community Council decided to declare 13 villages as places of refuge, a declaration supported under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The objective of these areas is to prohibit the presence of armed actors with the aim of preventing the population from becoming the victim of armed confrontations and/or from being declared as targets by the armed forces. Today, unfortunately, we are witnessing the reactivation of this legal tool for survival that many had wanted to leave behind after the demobilisation of the FARC-EP. Regrettably, peace has still not arrived in these lands, and they have faced new cases of enforced disappearances and armed confrontations, like a bad memory that they are not allowed to leave behind or forget.
“Hanging a white flag shows that this village is a place where civilians live, and where armed actors cannot enter”, explains Chimonja, who was named defender of the year for 2017 by Diakonía Sweden. Meanwhile, we continue to wonder how to combine these two contradictory images that we will take away with us from the Naya: the image of a peaceful place where we marvelled at sacred nature and humanity; and the image of a place where humanity has to be fought for and cannot be taken as a given.
There are many more rivers like the Naya in Colombia. Places where violence is still present, but where we continue to hear voices of resistance; places where communities, in the legitimate exercise of their rights, defend their lands, which is to defend life and peace. They are not only struggling against weapons, but also against people who stigmatise them for their commendable efforts. In 2016 a peace agreement was signed in Colombia, but in 2018 there are still many peace processes, and infinite peace buildings in different regions, which, despite persecution and murder, continue, unstoppable, like the river.
Adrián Carrillo & Coraline Ricard
See: Mexican Newspaper: Disidencia de las FARC asesinó a líderes de El Naya, June $, 2018
See: Somos Defensores: Piedra en el Zapato, report, March 2, 2018; Indepaz: Informe especial de derechos humanos, June 2018 ; OACNUDH: Informe anual sobre la situación de derechos humanos en Colombia, March 2018
 Extract from IACHR precautionary measures: “On January 2, 2002 the [Inter-American] Commission granted precautionary measures on behalf of afro-Colombian communities in 49 hamlets in the Naya river basin in Buenaventura.The available information indicates that since the end of November 2001 there have been approximately 300 paramilitary members in northern Cauca and the southern part of Valle del Cauca, in the municipalities of Timba, Suárez, and Buenos Aires, who have threatened the Naya and Yurumanguí river indigenous, afro-Colombian, and campesino communities. The petitioners indicated that since December and January 2001, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) had been present in the upper Naya up to Carmen and Yurumanguí threatening the inhabitants to make them leave the area. On December 27, 2001 the threats were repeated.” Published in http://www.cidh.org/medidas/2002.eng.htm; Verdad Abierta: Mujeres víctimas de la masacre del Naya, 15 November 2013
 El País: En el último mes, se han incautado seis toneladas de cocaína en la región del Naya, June 2, 2018
“Vamos a sacar al [Naya] delante.Vamos a sacar al [Naya] adelante. Le canto a mi tierra con amor porque la llevo en mi corazón. Sabroso me siento de estar aquí porque es la tierra donde nací.
Padeces en el olvido, desde el momento de tu creación; representa la pobreza, la pena y marginación
Has vivido marginado, ahogado en la ilusión, sabiendo pueblo que eres muy digno de admiración.
Tus hijos son tan humildes, humilde tu generación, dotados de inteligencia, sin libertad de expresión.
Tienes tierra muy fecunda, mujeres bellas y es más posee riqueza inmensa, en oro, platino y mar.
Toda tu naturaleza es fuente de producción, entonces porque no sales de tanta marginación
Adelante despertemos, compañeros del futuro, salgamos del conformismo nos espera lo más duro”
 See: Cijp: En memoria de Juana Bautista, Espacios de refugio en el Naya, 22 de abril 2009
Lilia Peña Silva is a woman with kind eyes who smiles often. She emanates a positive and welcoming energy as she invites us to her home. At the moment she is allowing herself to breathe more easily after a particularly difficult month in May. Lilia talks to us about her work and her life as a human rights defender. She is a survivor of the horrors of the Colombian armed conflict. She was forcibly displaced from San José del Guaviare after her family was persecuted and her husband was killed in 1998. Conflict-related violence followed her to Santander, where in 2002 her brother was also killed, after experiencing constant harassment. Lilia has also been persecuted throughout her life. She is one of those fighters that are so rare. Because of the injustices she has faced, she has dedicated her life to supporting victims of the armed conflict with all her energy and generosity. In 2004, with a team of ten people and six organisations she founded the Association of Victims of State Crimes in the Magdalena Medio Region (Asociación Regional de Víctimas de Crímenes del Estado del Magdalena Medio – ASORVIMM).
PBI accompanies ASORVIMM from time to time in Barrancabermeja where they have their office, working for victims and also with trade unions, small-scale farmers, students and grassroots organisations. The organisation is part of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado – MOVICE), and offers legal support, workshops on victims’ rights, psychosocial workshops and support for the construction of historical memory. ASORVIMM works in the north of the Antioquia department, throughout the Magdalena Medio region and in Guamocó.
The latest attack against Lilia took place when six armed, hooded men entered her home violently, to commit what appeared to be a robbery. It was a traumatic experience, as the assailants pointed their guns at Lilia’s head and at her 9 year-old granddaughter. They also harassed her 90 year-old father. The defenders’ whole family were terrified. The assailants stole a computer, telephones and USB sticks which Lilia uses for her work and they also took financial information related to her work.
According to members of ASORVIMM, one of the attackers was arrested several hours afterwards, along with the taxi driver who drove the men to Lilia’s home. The incident was also reported to the Prosecutor’s Office. More than one month later, there is still little information about what really happened and why. According to the organisation, the 8th Prosecutor’s Office in Barrancabermeja has not been in touch with them, and at least six of the perpetrators have yet to be identified.
Lilia and her family have been badly affected by the intrusion of this violence into their daily lives. They hope that progress will be made in the case as quickly as possible so that life can return to normal, given that Lilia has had to suspend her activities as a human rights defender for the moment, and has had to focus on caring for her father.
The persecution of peacebuilding and human rights defence work
Lilia knows this kind of violence well. She has experienced it before and continues to face it, in her work with victims in Barrancabermeja, Monterrey and Santa Rosa del Sur. Her commitment to achieving respect for victims’ rights has not wavered. This tireless defender talks to us about the communities she supports, and describes how she has always wanted to work alongside them.
We are impressed by Lilia’s strength as she continues to protect the victims of the conflict with her team from ASORVIMM. When we ask her where she gets her strength, she answers with a shy smile, and says that it comes from her sons and daughters. She explains that being a woman human rights defender is an added challenge. The attacks she experiences are related to her work but they also affect her personal life and her family, “male defenders are freer and can relocate more easily if the threats get too serious”. Lilia tells us that she and her female colleagues cannot imagine leaving their region because they have closer ties to the area where they live. They are the true heads of their families as well as being defenders, and they are victims of attacks aimed at forcing them to give up their work.
The next step
Although the harassment and persecutions continue, Lilia is looking towards the future. When we finish the interview, we are speechless, at a loss for words in the face of all she has had to live through, including what happened on 9 May this year. We continue to admire her in silence; it is not every day that we meet someone who is courage incarnate. She gives us a shy semi-smile when we share our admiration. And that’s when she says, “it’s customary to be awesome round these parts”.
When we are finally about to leave, even though we would like to stay longer with this extraordinary woman, we see her 4 year-old granddaughter in the street, opposite the house, having her first experience of riding her bike. We watch transfixed, as she propels herself forwards for the first time.
Agathe Chapelain, Maelys Orellana and Yvonne Furrer
ASORVIMM: Grave amenaza contra Lilia Peña fundadora de ASORVIMM, 10 May 2018 ; Prensa Rural: En Barrancabermeja hombres armados amenazaron y agredieron a Lilia Peña, defensora de derechos humanos,11 May 2018
On the 22nd of June 2018, representatives of the Embassy of Germany and France, Caritas Germany and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GIZ) made a diplomatic visit to express their support for the work of the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation (FNEB), which accompanies victims of forced disappearance to achieve truth and justice. Seventy relatives of victims of forced disappearance attended the event from the following organizations: Familiares Colombia (Family members Colombia), Madres del Meta y Guaviare (Mothers of Meta and Guaviare), Madres por la vida (Mothers for life), Mujer sigue mis pasos (Woman follows my steps) coming from Bolívar, Boyacá, Caldas, Casanare, Cauca, Cundinamarca, Meta, Putumayo and Valle del Cauca. Continue reading Remembering forced disappearence in Colombia
Despite the signing of the Peace Agreement between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in November 2016 and the efforts of the State and other entities to situate Colombia in a “post-conflict” context, the main outcome is that the situation of risk for human rights defenders, their organisations and communities, has stayed the same and in some cases has even worsened after the signing of the Agreement. Continue reading 2017: international accompaniment and observation during the first year of the Peace Agreement