Return to freedom

Before nightfall, a small group of men and women gathered in the waffe (port) of Turbo, to put candles in plastic cups and create improvised lanterns. They handed these out to those present, as well as some small white flags with the word “Peace” written on them. The young girls, attached these flags to their hair ties, giving the group a vibrant appearance. The gathering gets bigger as the beginning of the march gets closer.  When night falls, the march begins, and the procession moves through the streets of Turbo, under the watchful gaze of its inhabitants. The walk takes us to the sports stadium, where 20 years ago more than 2,300 people displaced from the Bajo Atrato River Basin by Operation Genisis were forced to shelter in inhumane conditions for more than three years[1].  During the march, there are moments of deep silence, the difficult conditions in which they lived are still very present in the hearts of the river basin’s inhabitants. They all retain the memories of what they have suffered. The arrival of at the stadium is emotional, each participant in the march (accompanied by several international organisations) knows what happened in this place. Some tell us first-hand what they experienced.

When night falls, the procession through the streets of Turbo begins, under the watchful gaze of the city’s inhabitants.

Denis was just nine years old when the violence arrived in Cacarica (territory located in the Pacific Forest Reserve in the Bajo Atrato Region). She lived with her parents and her 10 brothers in a farm far away from the main village.  She remembers that day as if was yesterday: she had just woken up, it was the 27th of February, she heard gunfire and went outside. The dogs were howling.  Her father sent the children back inside and prohibited them from leaving the house, meanwhile he went to the village to see what was happening.  There he learnt the dreadful news; that the paramilitaries had humiliated and assassinated his neighbour Marino López in front of everybody in the village of Bijao. They had cut his head off and then played football with it.

When he returned to the farm, Denis’s father ordered everyone to quickly pack the bare necessities, her little brothers and sisters were put on mules and they hastily made their way to the town of El Limón. During the journey, Denis saw that many people were running scared; the paramilitaries had told everyone that they had to leave the territory immediately because they were there to look for the “guerilla”. Some of the people embarked on a two journey, crossing the jungles of the Darién on foot until they reached Panama. However, the majority of Cacarica’s inhabitants travelled by small boat down the Peranchito and Perancho rivers, until they arrived at the Atrato. There they crossed the Gulf of Urabá and finally reached the port of Turbo.

Denis remembers that a boat even sunk because it was carrying too many people.  They never again saw their chickens, cows or mules that they kept on their farm. The story was similar for the majority of people, and whoever managed to save a cow or another animal, had to sell it below price later in Turbo. Later it became known that the paramilitaries transported the cattle from their farms via the Salaqui river to sell them. They of course got a good price for them.

In Turbo, the Police were waiting in the waffe. The displaced people got down from the boats, and were immediately loaded onto trucks in order to take them to the sports stadium.  For months, they had to sleep on the floor or the seating area. There was no access to bathrooms, or water. Apart from some of the big NGO’s, no one from the Colombian state, or the city of Turbo, offered them any type of help. Furthermore, the Police put a fence around the stadium and told them “outside the fence we won’t take responsibility for you, everyone has to stay inside the fence, leave under your own responsibility”. The paramilitaries were watching over the stadium, sometimes they even passed through the police perimeter, and they entered the stadium threatening those who had been displaced. In one of these incursions they took Herminio, one of the leaders who they had accused of being a guerrilla collaborator.  They killed him and left him in a ditch.

The people who had been displaced had no trust in local institutions, they didn’t trust the Colombian state, they had seen for themselves that the paramilitaries and the Colombian military were working hand in hand during the displacement.


Jaheira was seven years old when all this happened, and she still recalls the suffering and the misery that they experienced. When she was displaced in Turbo, she longed for the surroundings she had grown up with, she missed the river and the mountains. In school in Turbo they had to suffer the taunts of the other kids who shouted” “¡Desplazados!” (displaced people) and they bullied them.

In in the midst of all the chaos and the desperation, a group of human rights defenders from the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission arrived and they offered to help them return back to their territory.

albergue Turbo
Some of the families who had been displaced from Cacarica eventually managed to establish themselves in these houses in Turbo.

With this support, the leaders joined forces to tackle the situation, and they began to form a Community Council of the Black Community.  At the end of 1997, the OAS Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, requested that the Colombian state apply precautionary measures to the people displaced from Cacarica in order to protect them from the threats, unfounded accusations and harassment that were being directed at them by the paramilitaries.

After many meetings, and much work and persistence they made the Colombian state support the return to their lands and hand over the Collective Title for their territory. In 1999, the Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform allocated to the communities of Cacarica, 103,561 hectares of land where their ancestors had lived since the 18th Century when the descendants of slaves brought from Africa decided to flee to the dense jungles of the Bajo Atrato.

KK-retorno de la comunidad-2000
In the waffe in Turbo before returning in 2000.

That year they also created the “Community for Self-Determination, Life and Dignity of Cacarica (CAVIDA)” and began working to bring back the other members of their community who had fled to Panama and then had been transported to Bahía Cupica on the Pacific Coast where they lived in terrible conditions. The idea was that they would all return back to their territory together.

Meanwhile, the men and women who were most experienced in agricultural work and fighting against the ever-encroaching jungle, crossed the Gulf of Turbo again and navigated themselves up the Atrato, Perancho and Peranchito until they arrived in Cacarica. They had gone “to check the oil”, Pascual told us. He had been one of the first to return to his land in the exploratory missions to “put his chest out and see what happened”.  They confirmed that the jungle had swallowed their houses and their fields; that a lot of trees had been cut down, and of some species of trees there was basically nothing left.  They managed to save some of the seeds and they began to sow: rice, cassava and corn so that when everyone else came back they had things to eat.  In the first few missions, they found no opposition, no presence of guerrillas nor paramilitaries.

Julien Menghini
In 2000 they returned to Cacarica. Photo: Julien Menghini

In 2000 they returned to Cacarica. The emotions were too much for some returnees. They were once again navigating the rivers, finding themselves surrounded by nature. However, the rainforest had been cut down and dead trees were clogging up the river. It was obvious that the three years of displacement had been hard for their territory as well. Nothing was the same, but they had their objectives clear, together again, peasant farmers and their land, life would flourish in this remote part of Colombia. Cacarica would become a paradise again; however, the violence had not ended.

“It was like returning to freedom”, with these words Jaheira summarises the experience of returning, and the happiness she felt seeing her river and returning to afternoons spent in the river playing with her friends.

“It was like returning to freedom”, with these words Jaheira summarises the experience of returning.

The journey of resistance began (and continues until today), with the creation of the Humanitarian Zones: Nueva Vida and Nueva Esperanza en Dios, in which the entrance of armed groups (legal or illegal) was prohibited.

Bianca Bauer and Noelia Vizcarra



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