We hear a rustling in the woods and we stop our swimming and chatting. We turn around to try to see who is coming. We are swimming in a water hole in northern Colombia, where a war between paramilitary groups, guerrillas and drug cartels has been going on for nearly 60 years. The water hole we are swimming in is located in La Alemania, a plot in a mountainous area called Montes de Maria on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. This area has been a strategic location for drug trafficking from Colombia to Central and North America, where the armed conflict has meant some 56 massacres, approximately 4,000 politically motivated killings, and 200,000 forced displacements.
To get to La Alemania, we first take the bus to San Onofre—a small town with a history of violence. There are 42 mass graves in San Onofre as a result of violence carried out between 2006 and 2007. We are accompanying a Colombian lawyer named Astrid from the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission. By the road, in what seems like the middle of nowhere, a gravestone is placed with the name Rogelio Martinez. This man is the reason that we have come here, and we are on our way to visit his family on what is left of their farm called La Alemania.
A few minutes’ walk from the lakeside we arrive at Julia’s farm—Rogelio’s widow. Here we spend the night in hammocks in a house that once was the headquarters of paramilitary leaders in the area. In 2001, paramilitary leader, alias Cadena, gave orders to displace the peasants, and La Alemania was made into a strategic paramilitary centre. In 2007, the families began to return, with Rogelioas a leading community figure. In May 2010, he was stopped on his motorcycle on his way home to La Alemania, and killed by a group of masked men. The people responsible for the Rogelio’s deathremain free.
This is not a unique story. According to the Human Rights Ombudsman´s Office, at least 71 leaders working to reclaim their land have been murdered between 2006 and 2011 in Colombia. Another farm called La Europa is located in this part of Montes de Maria. After massive flight from this area in 1994, families began to return in 2010, with the help from the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE).
However, the work carried out by MOVICE, the Inter-church Commission, and other organizations to help families return to their lands is not without risk. In May, PBI accompanied members of MOVICE to La Europe, where lawyer Jeison Pava held a seminar to inform farmers about their opportunities to legally reclaim their land. The next day, he received this threatening message: “We have wonderful offers such as: funeral coffins at half price […] We hope you will stop by our offices to take advantage of these great offers […] do so as soon as possible so that you do not miss the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Back in the water hole, with a breath of relief, we smile at each other, a bit embarrassed, after a tense couple of seconds. It was just an elderly man on horseback from one of the neighbouring farms that was passing by. We try again not to think about where we are, and continue to swim and chat. I let my t-shirt remain at the edge of the water, and swim a little longer—at least for now.