It is still dark; the air is cold and moist because it had rained all night. From the public announcement speakers, a strong voice can be heard saying: “Good morning, today we are 20 years old!”, It is five o’clock in the morning. With a razor, a young peasant farmer shaves the number 20 into the head of another. The older girls are wearing gala dresses and have glitter in their hair. From the speakers, the hymn of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó starts to sound, “vamos todos adelante, con cariño y mucho amor”. The sun starts to rise and above the hills that surround La Holandita, white clouds emerge from the morning mist that hovers around the peaks. At six o’clock on the dot, all the inhabitants of La Holandita and the visitors from neighbouring villages, as well as foreign visitors, all gather around the monument to begin the first act of the day, a prayer to celebrate, remember and commemorate.
The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó was born twenty years ago in the midst of violence, forced displacement and assassination. In this region in the north-east of Colombian, guerrilla fighters have been present since the 1970s and from about 1996 paramilitary forces started carrying out armed operations therefore scaling up the intensity of the armed conflict. By the beginning of 1997, 5000 inhabitants of the region were pleading for protection from the armed groups. On Sunday, the 23rd of March, the most notable leaders of the region met in the ghost town that was once the busy settlement of San José to sign the document that would create the Peace Community. “There was not even a shop opened to buy a fizzy drink that day”, remembers Gildardo. “We didn’t know when we went to sleep at night if we would wake up the next day alive”‘ Doña Brígida adds.
One month after the document was signed the paramilitaries arrived again and a new wave of displacement began. However, about 500 peasant farmers stayed and chose to resist as part of the Peace Community. The majority of the previous leaders were dead or in exile. Those that stayed did so knowing that this choice could mean their death. “Those who are not willing to defend the land, that represents more than one’s own mother, well they can go to another place” this was the phrase that reverberated through the meetings at the beginning.
And indeed, the cost was, and still is, high. That same year the paramilitaries and the guerrillas began to kill leaders, shopkeepers and any member of the Peace Community who dared to leave their refuge to buy food or medicine or sell their crops in the city of Apartadó. The cost of 20 years of violence is overwhelming: 320 members assassinated, 350 death threats, 100 cases of torture and 50 cases of forced displacement. There were countless massacres, but the one that impacted the Peace Community most was that of the 21st of February 2005. That day 8 people were assassinated in the hamlets of Mulatos and La Resbalosa, some of them were hacked to death with machetes, among the dead were three minors as well as the community leader Luís Eduardo Guerra.
However, in the midst of this violence the community has still managed to create an alternative society. In the past they had suffered constant economic blockades, one of the worst was in 2002 and it lasted six months. The paramilitaries stopped food and medicine getting through and they would say to people: “if anyone dares to try and get through some rice or beans, we will assassinate them”. Many of them died trying to by a pound of rice or salt. The armed groups would rob the mules, the domestic animals and the provisions.
This forced the Peace Community to look for other options, and after investigating and studying they started working on a model of food sovereignty, recovering native seeds from the area, they started growing cocoa, (that today is exported to several European Country, and it goes through several checks in order to maintain fair trade standards). They also planted self-subsistence crops. As well as food sovereignty, they have also achieved an alternative model of education, with their own teachers who focused on an education that takes into account love and respect for the land. Then eventually they created the University of Resistance. They kept building on these models and today they form part of the basis of the Peace Community.
The anniversary event had several presentations and acts of celebration that went on despite the torrential rain. After lunch, the sun came out and the inhabitants and the visitors of La Holandita walked with photos of assassinated leaders in their hands, and their heads held high, up to the small town of San José, where they started to write the story of the Peace Community. “Those that they have killed, are not dead to us, instead they have left us an example to follow”, says a proud 84-year-old man named Joaquín. The Peace Community puts great importance in memory and history as a fundamental pillar of their existence.
They are celebrating 20 years of existence but not even the Peace Agreement has brought the peace that they have wanted for so long. Violence still stalks the Peace Community and this year neo-paramilitary groups have entered several times into the hamlets that form part of their territory. “They have tried to take a direct form of control” explains Father Javier Giraldo “they force the inhabitants of the villages to attend meetings, where they explain that they should pay a war tax on their cows, crops and businesses. The paramilitaries are trying to take control of the territories that the FARC have left due to the demobilisation process”. Father Giraldo and the inhabitants confirm that recently the neo-paramilitary groups have increased their presence in the territory. Sometimes they have civilian clothes on other times they wear uniforms. “They are confirming that now they are the authority in the region and that everyone should respect them”, he continues.
After Father Giraldo has explained the depressing context that they are in Jesus Emilio finishes off with a depressing epitaph “our sons and daughters will have to struggle the same as I did”. Despite this, all not lost, and apart from their spirit of resistance and their capacity to convert great feats into opportunities, the Peace Community has the support of the international community, represented by three international organisations (FOR, Operazione Colomba and PBI) who are present at the event, members of the European Parliament, representatives of embassies, including ambassadors as well as OHCHR (headed by its representative Todd Howland).
“What is the magnetism that has been created by the synergy with the international community?” Father Giraldo asks aloud, he then responds: “a feeling of human dignity”.
Noelia y Bianca
 Padre Javier Giraldo, presentation, 23rd of March 2017, la Holandita, Peace Community of San José de Apartadó.