Before arriving to Colombia I had heard about the Peace Community of San José de Apartado from the work I had carried out as a volunteer in the PBI offices in London.
I had heard that as a community they had decided to turn their backs on all armed actors, both legal and ilegal and declare their neutrality in the Colombian conflict. Their dedication and conviction struck me as particuparly inspiring and definitely contributed to my decision to apply as a field volunteer in PBI Colombia.
I have now been in PBI for two years, the majority of which I have spent in the petrol capital of the country, Barrancabermeja. After having spent two years accompanying human rights defenders around the country, I still hadn´t had the opportunity to the visit the community that inspired me to embark on this adventure.
A month ago I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the field team in Apartado as part of my new role in the coordinating team in Bogotá. On this five day trip I managed to squeeze in a visit to the infamous Peace Community and was finally able to contextualise this brave group of human rights defenders who continue to fight to defend their land and ideals.
The small settlement of “La Holandita” is the first glimpse of the Peace Community as you travel up from the city centre of Apartado. Outside is the famous sign which details the srtict prinicples and rules the community live by. Arriving to this point that I had seen so many times in photos and documentaries was exciting and emotional. Exciting to be able to finally put faces to names and get a real feel for community life in this place I had heard so much about, and emotional knowing that these peaceful people still live under such trying conditions which threaten their persistence in the territory and their resistance to the armed conflict.
At first glance La Holandita is idilic. It is a small collection of maybe twenty houses covered in flowers and painted bright colours. Small children are playing and dogs are running around freely. The cacao plants which provide a substantial part of the community´s income are nearby and the various wooden constructions for processing the cacao are just next to the houses. There is a large thatched meeting space where the leaders meet every Sunday to discuss recent news and events and communitcate with the international organisations that accompany them. Aswell as PBI, the community is accompanied by two other organisations; Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and Palomas Operazione Colomba. Palomas maintains a permanent presence in La Holandita and FOR in La Unión which is a little further up.
Despite knowing noone, people greet me with huge smiles and the characteristic warmth of colombian culture. Although I am a new face, I represent a steady stream of field volunteers who have been present in the Peace Community for over twenty years, in which time huge compasion, frienship and trust has been nurtured, a fundamental part of international accompaniment throughout the country.
Meeting Doña Brigida was a real pleasure and honor. This lady is a fundamental tenet of life in the Peace Community. As she sits quietly finishing beaded earrings which I then buy, she lovingly recounts tales of the community´s struggles and unimaginable tragedies. Doña Brigida has been a witness to the entire process of consolidation of the community and the constant attacks, intimidations and threats they have received for standing against the grain and refusing to be involved in the conflict.
As I watch her wrinkled fingers threading beads, it strikes me that the Peace Community´s struggle is one that involves us all, from wherever we come from and whatever our ideology. Their struggle is one for freedom. Freedom to be able to choose how they want to live and to be truly free of external pressures. Very few people in the world can truly claim to be free in this sense, and it strikes me that it is in all of our interests to support those who fight for this fundamental right.
We spend the evening meeting community members and discussing the current challenges the community faces. It is encouraging to see new young leaders who are following in the footsteps of their parents´ conviction to defend the community as best they can and ensure its survival for the coming generations. Equally it is a real pleasure to meet the other organisations that accompany the Peace Community, also dedicating so much of their lives to ensure the security of human rights defenders in Colomia and spreading the message of international solidarity which is so important to communities that live in the middle of conflict.
Leaving the next day I feel refeshed and rejuvinated but my head spins with questions and worries for the future of this community. Being situated in such a strategic point in the country, economic interests from all sides are closing in on them constantly. Although with the peace agreement the FARC-EP has retired from the area, the threat from neo-paramilitary groups persists and represents a real danger for those defending the community´s right to remain on the land. The community continues to denounce the presence of these groups.1 Despite the challenges they face, the Peace Community remains stoically committed to its cause and should be an inspiration to us all to do them same.
Hannah Matthews, British volunteer
1Verdad Abierta, No ceden los asesinatos contra defensores de derechos humanos, 09 abril 2016