Dawn has yet to break. It’s five in the morning and we are leaving our house in Apartado, Uraba, heading for the Jiguamiando River basin, to the Humanitarian Zone of Nueva Esperanza. Depending on weather we will get there by land or by river. This time we travel the final stretch of the journey by boat. A youngster from the community artfully pilots the long narrow canoe up the small tributaries to the Jiguamiando River.
On the banks of the Jiguamiando River a village appears, it is Nueva Esperanza Humanitarian Zone.
In the Humanitarian Zone, we’re invited to have a coffee by the football pitch. Little by little the rain water that’s been following us on our three hour journey from Apartado arrives.
The football pitch and the main streets of the Humanitarian Zone are flooded.
We chat to the villagers over a cup of coffee, amidst the silence of the jungle. Once in a while the silence is broken by the sound of an engine from a boat passing along the river.
The work groups organised by the inhabitants of Nueva Esperanza to work on their lands outside the Humanitarian Zone or to upkeep the access routes have already left for work when we, the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission and DiPaz prepare for a trip downriver on a verification mission to where the silence was shattered in recent weeks.
Although the ELN hadn’t been seen near the Humanitarian Zones since 1997, on 10 September 2017 there was fighting between the ELN guerrillas and the neo-paramilitary group that calls itself the Autodefensas Gaitainistas de Colombia, AGC. The sound of their gunfire could be heard from the Humanitarian Zone. Two weeks later there was more fighting in Santa Fe de Churima, this time between the ELN and the Colombian Army.
For several years a number of institutions, including the Human Rights Ombudsman, have issued warnings about how the presence of the ELN and AGC in Lower Atrato are putting the communities at risk.
Paramilitarism in Jiguamiando has been reconfigured, and the presence of neo-paramilitaries in neighbouring Cubarado is being reported since last year. In 2017, they have also been sighted in Jiguamiando, which poses a risk to the people living in the Collective Territory of the Black Communities. The community has reported receiving targeted threats and the presence of up to 300 neo-paramilitaries in the Collective Territory. During the verification mission we talked to local inhabitants who spoke of the fighting in September and said that they hadn’t heard such fierce combat since 2011.
When we get back to Nueva Esperanza Humanitarian Zone, the water level has dropped, and the pitch and streets are dry.
And women are heading down to the river shore to wash laundry.
It is good to know that there are protected areas, where no armed actors are allowed to enter, and respect for the Humanitarian Zones remains considerable. The agreements between the FARC and the government, and the convictions against oil palm businessmen who were involved in forcibly displacing the civilian population have yet to bring the yearned for peace to Jiguamiando. Fighting has returned, the presence of armed groups is increasing, land restitution and the reinstatement of the Collective Territories of the Black Communities are still in limbo. What is more, the threats against community leaders and land restitution claimants continue. Can the ceasefire with the ELN, commitments to dismantle neo-paramilitary structures and the Development Plan with a Territorial Focus translate into lasting change for the Jiguamiando basin and the communities who live there?
Aurore and Mikaela
Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (CIJP): Enfrentamientos entre AGC y ELN ponen en riesgo comunidades afro e indígenas, 10 September 2017
Cijp: Enfrentamientos ponen en riesgo comunidades, 27 September 2017
Verdad Abierta: La guerra que se cocina lentamente en el Chocó, 29 October 2015
Cijp: Comienza ofensiva neoparamilitar en Jiguamiandó, 8 March 2017
Cijp: Militares de la brigada 17 ingresaron a Zona Humanitaria, 2 October 2017
El Espectador: La alianza paramilitar con los palmeros en el bajo Atrato chocoano, 9 June 2017
Palabras al margen: “Terceros” o determinadores? el proyecto económico paramilitar en Bajo Atrato, 15 June 2017