It’s a long way from Barrancabermeja, Santander to El Bagre, a sub-region of the neighbouring department of Antioquia. While only 120kms as the crow flies, it’s a 20-hour journey by bus via Medellín where we met with Mauricio Sánchez, the president of Aheramigua, the Asociation of the Small-Scale Farmers and Miners of Guamocó to accompany both him and colleagues from other organisations to a humanitarian refuge in the settlement of Puerto Claver, El Bagre.
In Puerto Claver hundreds of people have been displaced by the armed conflict in the surrounding area. Mauricio has brought together a Verification Commission to independently investigate the causes of the displacement and disappearances and to help those affected with the legal processes that will help to ensure that the state fulfils its obligation to protect the human rights of its citizens.
From El Bagre to Puerto Claver we travelled by landcruiser, the roads in this part of Colombia are rough, despite the numbers of people who use this road there is minimal investment in infrastructure.
The countryside around Puerto Claver is divided into ‘veredas’ and though the armed conflict has only affected a few areas directly, other communities have left through fear of what might happen if they had stayed. There have been 40 years of armed conflict in this area and the presence of many different actors.
Mauricio gave an impassioned speech to the assembled communities. He explained the relevance of human rights, international humanitarian law to the current situation.
He also explained the obligations of the state and the legal processes by which there could be redress for the violations of human rights which have happened. The Verification Commission would collect testimonies from those who have been affected by the recent violence and these testimonies would oblige the Colombian state to investigate and guarantee the security of the communities. The independence of the Verification Commission would be a check on the official version. Mauricio spoke of the historic importance of this occasion, never before in the history of the armed conflict had testimonies of violations of human rights been collected.
There is a great deal of fear in the communities of possible repercussions should they make testimonies and due to the complex nature of the armed conflict and the dynamics of power in the region, there is little trust of state institutions. (For this reason we have not included photos of members of the communities which might make them identifiable).
Later that day a military helicopter flew overhead with two black bags suspended beneath.
The following day the Army and the Departmental Police arrived to distribute food and additional mattresses. A Coronel spoke about what the army was doing to secure the territory and of the bodies of the disappeared that the Fiscalia (State Department) had exhumed. A third body had been found in pieces – a leg, part of a torso and a skull, possibly belonging to the same body in another location.
Some members of the Verification Commission travelled to the affected areas and witnessed houses that had been sacked, animals that were dead or dying through lack of care and the warning ‘Death to Colaborators’ spraypainted on the wall of a house. They were also witness to the dire poverty in some of the communities, the lack of infrastructure which has its own bitter irony. One of the drivers for the armed conflict in this region is over the control of the land and the huge quantities of gold which lie underground.
After staying in the humanitarian refuge with the communities for several days, sleeping on the floor alongside them and eating their food it was hard to leave. The risks the communities face from the armed conflict may reappear at any time, and then there is the fear, which never goes away. As of the time of writing there is still no guarantee of when the communities may be able to return home safely. In some cases they will return to next to nothing.
Yet the human rights defenders we accompany face their own unique risks. And so we left to accompany Mauricio and his team, first by river, and then by bus on on the long journey back to Medellín, and then for us, back to Barrancabermeja.
Hamish Low, PBI volunteer from New Zealand