It was dusk when I waved goodbye to the rural farming community located in the north-western corner of Colombia, hopping on the back of the dusty old jeep that jerked and bumped its way down the gravel path, winding through the green hillside that gives way to endless banana plantations and the Gulf of Urabá. In Colombia, twilight is a brief, short-lived moment before the countryside is plunged into darkness under a vast, heavy, cloud-filled sky lit up by the occasional bolt of lightning. I thought about the many rural communities who, without electricity, would be settling down for the night, perhaps playing dominos by candle light while listening to vallenato on their battery-powered radios. Eventually the vallenato too is silenced, and the countryside drifts into a deep sleep, punctuated by the occasional roll of thunder, gunfire and explosions. At dawn, a pot of water is drawn from the river to prepare ‘tinto’ (coffee), vallenato again fills the air, farmers reach for their boots, sombreros and machetes. Another day begins.
In the year and a half that I spent in Colombia accompanying human rights defenders, I had the pleasure of spending time with many rural farming communities who are human rights defenders, even if they don’t know it or consider themselves as such. They oppose the use of violence and peacefully defend their right to their land. These farmers plough the land, sow their crops of yucca, rice and corn, diligently working by hand, relying on mules as their trusted companions. Unfortunately, this work is often abruptly interrupted by the arrival of alleged armed paramilitaries, who hunt the farmers off their land by killing, disappearing, attacking, or threatening the farmers and their families, provoking mass displacements, homelessness, hunger, and above all, fear.
In the sweltering heat of the Putumayo sun on a lazy Friday afternoon, I met a number of farmers who had come together in the southern Colombian city of Puerto Asis to discuss the recent wave of arrests of farmers, all having been accused of being members of the guerilla. According to the farmers, all those arrested were members of farmers associations involved in highlighting human rights violations in the area.
Some months previously, I travelled to Crucito, Tierralta on the edge of the Nudo de Paramillo National Park, an area reached only by boat, as it was completely cut off from the outside world by the construction of a dam, which flooded the entire area. This lake makes it impossible for farmers to export their crops to the nearest market. Although they were promised compensation, many abandoned the area having waited in vain for many years in false hope that their losses would be covered. I was deeply moved by the sheer number of people who walked for almost two days from the most remote corners of the Nudo de Paramillo to attend the humanitarian event and denounce for the first time before the human rights lawyers present, the years of abuse they have suffered and the total neglect by State institutions. I was truly in awe of their bravery and courage, but some weeks later I was stunned to silence and reduced to tears when I heard that two farmers in attendance had reportedly been shot dead by alleged paramilitaries.
On another occasion, on a bitterly cold, bleak day I sat in a small court-room in a colonial style village in the mountains of Boyacá, to attend the trial of a soldier, accused of abducting a local bus station attendant, luring him to a rural area in Boyacá, killing him and dressing him up as a guerilla to show the world that Colombia was winning the war against the FARC. I looked the soldier in the eye but saw no remorse, no emotion, not even anger or sadness. I saw nothing, he looked like he had died and rotted inside, like his victim, and the thousands of other “false positives” victims, so many of whom were innocent farmers and human rights defenders.
These, and many other similar stories ran through my mind as I sat for hours in the departures lounge of Bogotá International Airport waiting to board my flight home. I read the morning paper, which reported that yesterday’s strike by Colombian farmers had allegedly been infiltrated by the guerilla. The plight of farmers, which motivated them to strike in the first place, did not feature in the article.
The evening sun rays illuminated the plane eventually giving way to a starlit night sky and in my mind I was back once again in the rural community. I could almost hear the rattling of the domino pieces against a backdrop of vallenato, echoing through hills as the community settled down for the night. They had survived another day in Colombia’s bitter, armed conflict. I wondered how long more they would survive.
Niamh Ni Bhriain is a former Frank Jennings Intern with Front Line Defenders. She recently volunteered with Peace Brigades International in Colombia.