Let this year be over: 2017, be gone! Bad Old Year’s Eve, Good New Year’s Eve

It is 31 December in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, in the Antioquia department. Who here fancies a dance? Who feels like making and eating the traditional sweet custard and fritters known as natilla y buñuelos? “We are afraid, but we are together. If we make natilla custard, we’ll have natilla and fear. If we don’t make natilla we’ll still have the fear. If we dance, we’ll have fear and dancing. If we don’t dance, we’ll only have the fear” says a leader from the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Straight away some women and men get up and without a word walk towards the community restaurant and start the preparations for the New Year’s Eve festivities.


We are struck by noises on the other side of the street. Some people are carrying a straw man, wearing trousers and a t-shirt half filled with sawdust. “Are you still going to make an Old Year?”[1] asks a community member. “Of course”, replies a young leader with conviction, “there’s a lot that needs to be burned this year, we need to fill this thing up even more”. And so we go along with them to take the straw man down to the carpenters’ workshop. Some children join us on the way.

We pass by the community storehouse, the place where the attempted murder took place just a few days ago. “It still feels cold here; it takes some getting used to, doesn’t it? It will go away, won’t it?” asks a member of the community who was present during the attack, without expecting an answer. He carries on talking, giving details of what happened that day. Others add what they remember. The conversation stops for a moment as two motorbikes go by. I suddenly feel cold.

Germán Graciano

Neo-paramilitaries attempt to kill Peace Community legal representative

In the carpentry workshop we watch as the Old Year straw man grows – and grows and grows. I feel moved and murmur to myself, “bigger, make it bigger”. There are a lot of things to fill up the straw man with this year. What happened over the last few weeks probably won’t even fit in, what with all the other stuff already in there.

I think about the murders of José Merlín Murillo from Cacarica, Mario Castaño from La Larga Tumaradó, Hernán Bedoya from Pedeguita y Mancilla, and Alexander Padilla from Tierralta.[2] I think about the multiple threats over the last few months received by so many men and women leaders and land claimants who we have accompanied for many years in the Urabá region.[3] I think about the last two days and the attempted murder that almost brought to an end the lives of several people here, just next to where we are standing now.[4] I don’t want to burn these memories to forget them, but rather to transform them.

We stop watching the hands that are sewing up the Old Year straw man to observe our surroundings. There is nothing suspicious, some pigs are eating peacefully, and then we hear the colourful public bus that has come from Apartadó, full of brigadistas, that is to say more PBI observers, who will accompany the community on this New Year’s Eve. The heady aroma of natilla custard with cane sugar treacle welcomes them to the community.


A week ago we also ate natilla in the new Peace Community settlement, the Rigoberto Guzmán Peace Hamlet, while we accompanied the community’s Christmas Assembly. It was only recently that the community found out about the plan to murder their legal representative, Germán Graciano Posso. This plan was accompanied by multiple threats against Gildardo Tuberquia throughout the year.[5]

The Christmas natilla custard tasted different to the one they have made for New Year, which leaves an altogether different taste in our mouths, as we realise that the information they discovered was totally correct. Fortunately, the community has shown their incredible unity and capacity to face up to the situation, with no life lost during this incident, either by those who were attacked or the perpetrators themselves.

The Peace Community is also known for its wide solidarity network at both the national and international level, a network that immediately shared the news about what was happening. Despite this, just a few hours after the attempted murder, more threats were made against the Peace Community. The network was activated one more time in 2017, with PBI releasing a public statement on the serious human rights situation for human rights defenders in the Urabá region.[6]

From the field, we try to keep contributing our grain of sand to the community’s protection. As we finish the natilla, we agree a plan to take turns walking around the community and maintaining a presence in strategic places throughout the night, together with FOR and Operación Palomas, two other international accompaniment organisations who are present in La Holandita.

I can’t wait for this Old Year to be burned. At last the flames light up the night sky.  What will the events and experiences of 2017 be transformed into? How many more attacks can and will this Peace Community stand, face up to and overcome?



[1] In Colombia there is a tradition to burn the Old Year on the night of 31 December. The Old Year is a life-sized straw man, whose clothes are filled with pieces of wood and straw and with a wooden pole to keep it upright. Its head is often made with a totumo gourd with a face painted on.
[2] PBI Colombia: The most dramatic events of 2017, 29 December 2017; Dipaz: Pronunciamientos por los asesinatos de Tierralta Córdoba, 22 December 2017
[3] Contagio Radio: Rueda de prensa con líderes y lideresas del Bajo Atrato, 15 December 2017
[4] PBI Colombia: Neo-paramilitaries attempt to kill Peace Community legal representative, 29 December 2017
[5] Amnesty International: Colombia: Leader of Peace Community threatened: Gildardo Tuberquia, 5 December 2017
[6] PBI Colombia: Public Statement, 12 December 2017

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