Early on Saturday morning, five pangas with around 80 people left the wharf in Turbo to travel to the Humanitarian Zone of Nueva Esperanza en Dios (New Hope in God), Cacarica. After crossing the Gulf of Urabá, the vessels entered the first of the 16 branches of the River Atrato that empties into the Gulf. A little later, they arrived at Bocas del Atrato for a breakfast stop before undertaking the long journey ahead. The menu: freshly-caught fried anchovies with fried plantain patacones.
Once recharged, the pangas began the journey upriver, leaving behind little fishing villages of coloured houses that sit on stilts on the riverbanks. Children waved to the pangas as they sped by. In Travesías – Puente América (where the construction of a future bridge in the Panamericana highway is planned – the route that will link Alaska with Patagonia) we left the Atrato to take one of its tributaries, the Perancho River. A few minutes later, at the Navy checkpoint they informed us that we were unable to proceed due to combat operations. The pangas returned to Puente América while the passengers from Cacarica nervously whispered that perhaps the fighting was between the neo-paramilitaries and the Army.
In the first weeks of February, the local population had denounced the arrival of at least 600 paramilitaries to the Bajo Atrato region in the department of Chocó. According to the national daily newspaper, El Espectador, the Government had sent 4,000 soldiers to the area in response.
The brigadistas, Katrine and Aurore, immediately called the Casa PBI in Apartadó to ask their colleagues to make further calls to the Army and Navy for updated information regarding the security of the area. Prior to the pangas disembarking, none of the military commanders contacted had mentioned combat operations.
An hour later and after many calls, it appears that the fighting had been several hours away and the situation was now calmer. The journey recommenced and at the checkpoint the Navy gave the green light to continue our journey to Cacarica.
We then travelled up the Peranchito River, an even narrower tributary covered in ferns and lush vegetation. Those navigating the boat had to avoid huge chunks of wood the size of tables that floated downriver to be collected by timber merchants.
It is summer and despite being the rainest place on earth, during these months the rain is non-existent. The banks of the Peranchito are highly eroded from the massive extraction of wood over the last decades.
We progress slowly, then more slowly upriver. Marco, the leader of the community of Cacarica, recites the names of the thousands of birds that fly overhead: Cuervopato, Garzas, Martín Pescador… he recognises each by name and in the water we also see turtles and caimans, the little crocodiles that live in the river. For a moment we, (the crew of the panga and the passengers – most from international NGOs) forget about the armed conflict and marvel at the beauty of our surroundings.
Eventually we arrive at a point where the river has just about disappeared, due to the drought, and it is no longer possible to continue in the pangas. We step into the intense midday sun and walk for the rest of way toward our destination. Two hours later we arrive, burnt and exhausted in the Humanitarian Zone Nueva Esperanza en Dios in Cacarica.
We are here to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Operation Genesis, which was carried out by the Army in collaboration with paramilitaries and which caused 3,500 inhabitants to flee from the region. However the event went far beyond remembering the sad succession of killing, torture, forced entry and humiliation that they suffered. It also celebrated the little victories they have won over the years. Victories that have allowed the communities to continue living in this beautiful place: the Return, the collective title to their land, the creation of the Humanitarian Zones that prohibit the entry of armed actors, the sentencing of General Rito Alejo del Río who was condemned to 25 years in prison for the assassination of campesino farmer Marino López and the judgment against the Colombian state by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for not having protected the community.
During the weekend with the community we shared a procession with candles and torches under a sky full of stars, conversations with leaders from distant places who have also lived through the violence and resisted to remain in their territories, and a football tournament in homage to Marino López, a campesino who was tortured and later assassinated, his murderers played football with his head.
For the people of the Humanitarian Zone the weekend was also a celebration as they have demonstrated that is possible to transition from memories of suffering, to envisioning a new kind of life. A life that recognises the past but looks to the future with life and energy. For Marco, the leader of the community, the last 20 years have seen a great deal of impunity but he is certain that the community has the hope that one day there will be justice.
Bianca Bauer and Noelia Vizcarra
 El Espectador: La herencia paramilitar a 20 años de la operación Génesis, 19th February 2017
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