Last June, when we were accompanying the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) in the Humanitarian Zone, Camelias (Curvaradó), I met a young boy from the Humanitarian Zone Nueva Esperanza (Cacarica). I remember one night a film about the civil war in Spain was shown, and it began with gunshots. He turned around and said to me “this reminds me of the displacement in February 1997, we heard gunshots like that, and I went with my mum to look for shelter in the jungle. We were so scared, but she protected me. I was ten years old. It was really difficult thereafter as displaced people.” This young boy´s name is Amin, he is a leader in his community and part of the rap group “Renacientes”, who write songs in memory of their history, their people and in favour of peace.
The 24th February 1997 will remain in the minds of the people who lived in the collective territory of Cacarica forever. It was the day in which Operation Génesis began, initiated by the 17th Brigade, alongside which the paramilitaries from the Autodefensas Campesinas de Urabá and Cordobá began Operation Cacarica1. The supposed objective of these missions was to attack the strongholds of the guerrilla, but it ended up seriously affecting afro-descendant communities from the territory: 3,500 people were forcefully displaced and another 85 were killed2, such as campesino Marino López.
In December 2013 the Inter-America Court of Human Rights (ICHR) sentenced the Colombian State for this operation, declaring it “internationally responsible” for not having complied with their obligation to guarantee the rights of personal integrity and to not be forcefully displaced, of the members of the afro-descendant communities in the region of the river basin of the Cacarica river, municipality of Riosucio, Bajo Atrato chocoano, in the events that occurred between 24 and 27 February 1997.”3
Ana Martínez Moreno, leader of the Communities of Self-determination, Life and Dignity from Cacarica (CAVIDA) told me that she was working in the fields that day, harvesting maize, when she heard loud noises and saw kafir planes passing close to the population. She remembers how her son was scared and ran everywhere. At first they didn´t know what to do so they organised themselves into a commission and went to speak to the army. The army told them they had to leave or talk to the paramilitaries. In terror, they refused to speak to them and so left their territory, leaving their houses, homes, lands and lives.
Twenty three communities were displaced to different places, but the majority arrived to the city of Turbo by boat. Ana told me that when they arrived the police were waiting for them and took them to the sports coliseum. Over 2,000 people arrived to this place, never imagining that this would be their home for the next three to four years, an era that they would define as “the headache of the displaced people”, Ana remembers.
Those years that they spent in the coliseum were hard, there conditions were unhygienic, no privacy, there was a lot of police control, stigma and threats. Many different international organisations arrived to support them such as the Red Cross, Oxfam, Bread for the World and Doctors without borders. “We were adrift when Danilo Rueda, Abilio Peña and sister Carmen arrived from CIJP”, Ana tells me, “slowly we established a dialogue and this organisation began to accompany us, then PBI came. The PBI volunteers came to visit during the day and night, sometimes they stayed to sleep. The threats reduced with this international presence and there were no more killings”.
After a while the leaders organised themselves and created a Committee to enter into dialogue with the Colombian Government and coordinate visits to the coliseum. In 1998 they organised an exploratory mission in order to plan a return for the people to their territories and at the beginning of 1999 they built the association CAVIDA, based on five principles: truth, freedom, justice, solidarity and brotherhood. In the dialogue with the authorities they planned five points for the return: accommodation, land titles, reparations for the victims, the installation of a house of justice and the right to non-repetition. On the 15th December 1999, under the law 70 of 1993, the Colombian Government gave them the collective title to their territory, 103,024 hectares.4 They organised the return in various phases and created Humanitarin Zones,5 Nueva Vida and Nueva Esperanza en Dios, in order to protect themselves as civilian population in the middle of an armed conflict. PBI accompanied this return6 and permanently accompanied the communities until 2011.
At the start of the return process the threats from paramilitary groups continued and there were new displacements. The territory of the river basin of Cacarica is very rich and fertile land, meaning there are many economic interests in the region. Because of this the situation remains tense even today, despite the peace process and the fact that the FARC have left the territory. Since September 2016 the communities have denounced the presence and control of the neo-paramilitary group the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) in the collective territory7. On 12th February 20178 members of this group entered the Humanitarian Zone Nueva Esperanza en Dios9. This year as the 20th anniversary of Operation Génesis was commemorated, in a context of new threats, the communities of Cacarica are scared that history will repeat itself. They denounce that they have still not been repaired adequately as establishing in the ICHR sentence.10
CAVIDA is a grass-roots process that groups together over 1,200 campesinos, afro-descendants and victims of the armed conflict that promote civilian, non-violent resistance:
“We believe that our life project, with our humanitarian zones, with our “Malla de Vida”, with our poverty with dignity, with our human bonds, with our accompaniment, with our international reunions and tools with other national and international organisations, we can continue to resist, we can strengthen the humanitarian proposals in war, we can look for ways to reverse the causes of war, we can keep smiling with justice, we can keep defending our territory and its biodiversity that is humanity´s heritage, we can thing of a world in which we the people exercise our self-determination, out life, our dignity, a world where the people embrace each other.”11
Today we celebrate that CAVIDA is a finalist for the National Human Rights Prize in Colombia, given by Diakonia and the Swedish Church.
2Comunidades de Autodeterminación, Vida Dignidad del Cacarica- CAVIDA, Zonas Humanitarias de CAVIDA de Cacarica, en el Bajo Atrato, en el departamento de Chocó, Colombia., via Insumissia, 17 June 2005
3Verdad Abierta, Estado no protegió a comunidades durante Operación Génesis, 28 December 2013
4Comunidades de Autodeterminación, Vida Dignidad del Cacarica- CAVIDA, Zonas Humanitarias de CAVIDA de Cacarica, en el Bajo Atrato, en el departamento de Chocó, Colombia., via Insumissia, 17 June 2005
5A figue based on the principle of distinction from IHL, which prohibits the entrance of armed actors in their territory, the Humanitarian Zone of Nueva Vida was the first in Colombia
7PBI Colombia, “Hoy, de nuevo, tenemos el territorio invadido de paramilitares”, 16 February 2017
8Cijp, Amenaza indiscriminada a habitantes de ZH Nueva Esperanza en Dios, 12 February 2017
9Today it is called the Eco Aldea de paz Nueva Esperanza
10El Espectador, La herencia paramilitar a 20 años de la operación Génesis, 19 February 2017
11Comunidades de Autodeterminación, Vida Dignidad del Cacarica- CAVIDA, Zonas Humanitarias de CAVIDA de Cacarica, en el Bajo Atrato, en el departamento de Chocó, Colombia., via Insumissia, 17 June 2005