The small aircraft of Colombia’s Satena airline circles a uniform green sea of banana plantations, as it arrives at a landing strip in the heart of the Urabá region, long-time hotbed of the Colombian armed conflict.
There are two privileges attached to having a foreign passport in a conflict zone. You can use it to board the next flight out of trouble. Or you can use it as a tool for protecting human rights. I remind myself this, picking up my bag and wondering what these months will bring me, that this is why I am arriving in Urabá.
From Apartado airport it is an hour-long taxi ride to the port town of Turbo on the Pacific coast, population of around 160.000. In Turbo children are playing on the unpaved dusty treets with kites made out of twigs and plastic bags. I am to be part of the PBI team that is based here, on a second contract after spending 2009/2010 in Colombia’s Magdalena river valley, and 4 months at home in the Netherlands seeing friends, family and loved ones.
In my team there are currently 8 people; from Spain, Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, and me from the Netherlands. Within a few days we are expecting four new international team members. Our team works in the well-known Peace Community of San José de Apartadó (Antioquia department) as well as in the in the river basins of the Atrato and Curbarado rivers (Chocó department), providing protective accompaniment to human rights defenders and communities of displaced people threatened for their legitimate work towards justice and peace.
In Turbo, average temperature hovers around 30 degrees Celsius; the air feels stiff with heat and humidity. Clothes and shoes steadily and decidedly rot away. Even with sun lock factor 80 I turn a deep brown. Small red mites, who live in the grass, attach themselves to my legs and have to be extracted with something sharp and disinfected. They leave bumps that itch for a week. The evenings however are fresh, and a cool breeze coming in from the sea alleviates our discomfort.
We have travelled so much these past weeks, accompanying the communities in the Atrato and Curvarado river valleys, that in the morning, waking up in a hammock or hotel room somewhere, sometimes had to ask myself where I am.
So, I’m busily finding a new rhythm in a new place. At times overwhelmed by the amount of information, the complexity of an ever-changing context, and the burden of responsibility for people’s protection, and our own safety, that we must manage. I hope to have the clarity to absorb and analyse the information that I need, and the strength to assume responsibility and carry out this work.
Our work is based on the principles of impartiality and non-interference in the affairs of the organizations we accompany. Our role is limited to opening political space and providing moral support for local activists to carry out their work without fear of repression.
In daily life this includes physical presence (field visits to communities and accompanying lawyers and leaders of civil society organizations), advocacy activities (meetings with the Colombian authorities and the international community), and publishing updates to our international support network about the current human rights situation in Colombia.
I spent Christmas in the village of Nueva Esperanza (New Hope). It was my first accompaniment since my arrival, with an Afro Colombian community on the banks of the Atrato river. They live in the area bordering the Darien gap, an impassable area between Colombia and Panama.
So we set off in the motorboat from Turbo’s harbor, eyeing with disgust the filthy pelicans that fish in the heavily polluted harbour. After crossing the open Gulf of Urabá we enter the Atrato river basin through Bocas de Atrato and the settlement of Puente de America, a totally flooded array of a few wooden shacks of which only the roofs are visible. Relaxed and laid-back people lounge about. There is a functioning shop that sells biscuits and soft drinks. We make the satellite phone call to the office that we have arrived well.
“Aqui se quedan” (you’ll stay here) says our boatman, as here we will be picked up by a smaller boat of Nueva Esperanza. Our own motorboat of PBI with which we came here is too big to traverse the smaller arms of the river Atrato, where mangrove crowd inwards from both banks.
And it is true, a little while later appears a hollow tree trunk boat from the Nueva Esperanza community and we are brought to the village where we will stay for the coming 6 days. On the way we see a wonderful amount of birds: kingfishers, sterns, bee eaters, tricoloured herons, and the ubiquitous, gorgeous white egrets standing as stiff as knights on the water’s edge before taking off en masse in flight as we speed by in our boat.
Nueva Esperanza was established in 2001, when more than 1500 Afro-Colombians were displaced from the Cacarica River basin by (para)militaries in 1997, following a violent and terrifying episode in Turbo’s coliseum. The community succeeded with the help of the Court in regaining their stolen land, and returned to the place that they were born.
They were accompanied by PBI in their return to their land and set up the two humanitarian zones of Nueva Vida (New Life) and Nueva Esperanza (New Hope). Humanitarian zones are a figure that communities can adopt to mark out the difference between civilians and combatants in a conflict zone.
In Nueva Esperanza PBI has its own, roughly built wooden house on stilts, where local children pay us frequent visits to play with paint and pencils and drawing paper…. children’s drawings and poems decorate our walls.
Through the cracks in the floor I see the chickens scratching, and the cracks in the walls offer a rich view of the rainforest. We drink filtered rainwater from a plastic tub in the garden.
A rainstorm announces itself firstly by the sound of raindrops falling on big leaves further up in the rainforest, a sound that amazes me and which I had never heard before, and then… heavy rain arrives that makes conversation impossible while it lasts.
Mud is everywhere. This year has seen a prolonged rainy season that is unusually lengthy and has affected large areas of Colombia with floods and mud slides. The white T-Shirts with the PBI logo that we always wear are muddy; more of a political than a practical colour. At home I never wear white! Meanwhile the campesinos (small-scale farmers) always seem to manage to keep themselves clean, even though the roads are a muddy mess, and pavement of any kind is lacking whatsoever. I seem to attract mud and dust all over as soon as I step out of the front door.
At 18.00 the night sets in; this village is too far away to have a steady supply of electricity. We read by candlelight. We spend Christmas here, sharing the complete poverty of this community. A boy who visits us asks the very logical question: why do you have 2 candles burning at the same time? After experiencing their living conditions I can imagine that this would seem a big waste to him.
We talk for a while, listen to the World Service on the portable radio, and tuck in early, listening to the sound of crickets and howler monkeys.
In the morning we see men and women going off to their fincas (agricultural fields) to plant yucca (a starchy root crop) and rice, machete in hand to clear the way in the jungle, wearing rubber boots to protect against snakes.