They say that to remember is to live. Commemorations are important; some remind us of painful moments and others of more happy times, but they always allow us to stop for a moment and look back, to look at the pathway we have journeyed along, and everything we have learned and built along the way. This week, the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz – CIJP) commemorates its 30-year anniversary and the pathway it has forged since it was founded, accompanying victims and communities in different regions of the country. This commemoration is really emotional, and it is a good moment to sit down and chat about the amazing pathway they have walked along.
Father Alberto, Sister Cecilia and I meet for a coffee and a chat about what the CIJP represents, its foundation, its work and what have been its challenges and accumulated experience over these 30 years working “for life and a beautiful existence”.
The Commission was founded at a complex moment in Colombia, as always in Colombia: the peace negotiations during the Betancourt government, their failure, the birth and then the strengthening of the Unión Patriótica (UP) political party, followed by the extermination of its members, which caused a worsening of the armed conflict. At that time, as Father Alberto says, there was no religious organisation defending human rights. He was studying theology at the Javeriana University, and he joined a group of students who were asking themselves: “What can we religious people do?” The same question was also being asked by the Religious Conference of Colombia (Conferencia Religiosa de Colombia – CRC), namely how to involve religion in work to build justice and peace? As a first response they began by listening to the victims, and then they began to meet with UP presidential candidate, Jaime Pardo Leal, and other people and communities affected by the violence in Colombia. During this process of reflection, Father Alberto met Father Javier Giraldo, Danilo Rueda, and Eduardo Umaña and little by little they began building a proposal for a Justice and Peace Commission within the Religious Conference. However, their proposal was blocked by the president of the Episcopal Conference at that time. This was back in 1986, and after two years of their proposal being blocked, a group of religious people from different communities decided to create the Justice and Peace Commission using a different legal model, outside of the religious conference.
In essence, the CIJP was founded as an organisation to accompany victims of the conflict who were isolated and who no-one was supporting “the UP fought for its victims, the unions fought for their victims, but there were victims who nobody fought for … they were our founding inspiration”, Father Alberto tells me. From the beginning they continuously analysed the situation in great detail, to be able to respond quickly where they were needed: “when we started to work we analysed reality, so that we could attack the causes of the conflict, and we have always identified the system as the main victimiser”.
The first action they took was to create a shelter for refugees in the city of Barrancabermeja, “in fact, I went there in 1989, during my first Christmas as a priest,” Father Alberto recalls. They created support teams in Bogotá, composed of several people from different religious communities, which is why during its first phase the Commission was called “inter-congregational”, and they prepared to travel to the regions, to conflict zones, during difficult times, such as Easter and the holiday seasons in June and December. The teams also began to document cases detailing what was happening in the country. This experience is what has fostered the work of CIJP, and gives them their twofold vision: a strategic analysis of the background situation and concrete work in the field, and the combination of both of these elements has enabled them to protect lives.
Because of their work defending human rights, accompanying victims of the armed conflict and documenting cases, members of the CIJP have suffered a great deal of political persecution, threats and stigmatisation … The road has not been easy, and the challenge has always been how to face these aggressions , “the persecution in San Vicente del Chucurri in 1992-1993 was really oppressive, then there were raids in the office, strategies used by the XX Brigade to block the Commission’s work, a Plan to assassinate Father Javier … and also the crises and difficulties that led to the transition from the Inter-congregational Commission to the Inter-Church Commission”, recalls the Father.
“The challenge of facing persecution is the challenge of facing the most difficult moments without giving up, and that has been a determining factor in our work. Each physical attack, each media attack, each attack against communities and the Commission, each legal attack…how to deal with them according to our fundamental principles and how to adapt to that reality”. The persecution began before the Commission was founded, when the president blocked the work of the Religious Conference of Colombia … And it continues today, but has changed, due to the change in reality in this new technological context.
A key historical moment for the Commission
“One of the Commission’s characteristics is its ability to respond immediately and creatively to challenges, although that is also a headache. And I think something that has marked the history of this country, although it is not recognised as such, is the whole Cacarica issue, one of the great mass displacements in this country … although there were many such displacements in the country at that time, but they arrived in Turbo and they found the Commission team”, recalls Father Alberto. The region of Urabá was identified by the CIJP as a region for their attention because the war would intensify in the years to come. Starting in 1995, they began to travel there and work on strategies to avoid displacement. When Operation Genesis took place in February 1997 and the communities of Cacarica arrived en masse in Turbo, members of the CIJP were in the city participating in an evaluation and planning meeting with Father Javier Giraldo. When they received the news, they wanted to support the families.
The first concern in this tragedy experienced by thousands of refugees who were sheltering in the Turbo Sports Centre was how to respond humanely to the situation. From there they began to join forces with other organisations in the area, to create a relationship with the State and to make an international impact. “The existing public policy on the issue of forced displacement was developed at that time – it is the product of all the resistance during those 4 years in the sports centre”, says Father Alberto. Then they organised the return of the communities and created the first Humanitarian Zone (HZ) in the country, as a place to protect civilians in the midst of armed conflict, based on International Humanitarian Law. “The return and creation of the ZH is an opening, a way of approaching things, a profound response to the concrete situation, looking at it from this perspective is marvellous, the return and the pre-meeting in 2000 in Cacarica, their declaration continues to be inspiring, the way people saw their experience and wrote it down and how that showed them the way to go forward, and that began to open the door for the challenge in the Bajo Atrato region, to the largest political and military power in this country, both legal and illegal”, Alberto says with emotion, “and what the communities have done in the Bajo Atrato region is an absolute challenge, it is opening doors for other people”.
Sister Cecilia also remembers that moment very well. She joined the CIJP in the early 2000s when the situation was very tense and felt a call to support the organisation in its commitment to justice. She arrived in Cacarica, and her first mission was to look after the CIJP house to make sure that no one entered, “there was an army camp next to the ZH, and at that time there was not much confidence in the army”, she recalls. She then accompanied the processes in Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó where there were many cases of forced disappearance and assassinations of leaders. She has lived through many painful moments, including the murder of Orlando Valencia in 2005, the murders of Manuel and Samir Ruiz in March 2012, and she recalls stories of struggle and attacks, and searches for bodies, “it has been really important for me to be in the Commission”. She also tells me that she saw how important her role as a religious woman was, taking on leadership in the region, “every time something happened they put me out in front as the spokesperson”. She stayed for several years in the region until she became ill and had to leave.
30 years later
It is interesting to see that 30 years after the creation of the Inter-Congregational Justice and Peace Commission we are in the midst of the implementation of the Peace Agreement between the Government and the FARC. There are many uncertainties regarding the future, including possible breaches of this agreement. Within this context, the CIJP continues with its mission of “being with the people”, it does not want to look too much into the future, but to keep its guiding horizon of justice and peace and follow the pathway step by step. “I do not want to think ahead”, the Father tells me, “what we do know is that the Commission uses justice as its horizon – to understand social justice as a right and a condition for peace – and we understand that this is a permanent struggle, that there are changes in context and we adapt to this. We have experienced various direct attacks, discrediting of our work, theological attacks, in so many different ways, and we believe that in the future we must maintain that same horizon of justice and peace as a condition for building true democracy, as a condition for a dignified life”. That commitment to continue accompanying, to continue with their humanitarian concern is still at the centre of the organisation’s essence and they will continue to support the Peace Agreement and to accompany communities affected by violence that seek to know the truth.
In all these years, the CIJP “has been a gamble, an option to be with the victims, to accompany them in their decision to affirm their right to justice, to truth, to dignity, to reveal the concrete causes of victimisation, to create living conditions, spaces for people to live and defend their rights and that is a gamble. On the one hand, it is a positive thing, because we have seen that many things that were impossible yesterday are possible today, sometimes slowly and with difficulty, but they are possible. Many victims have been able to affirm their rights, rebuild their lives, but, on the other hand, it is really painful to look at how the system continues to strengthen and impose itself”, says Alberto.
PBI arrived in Colombia in 1994 at the request of the CIJP, and since then we have accompanied the members of this organisation. For us, it has always been an honour to accompany these processes of peaceful resistance in the territories. We congratulate the organisation for these 30 years of struggle and commitment to the search for truth and the construction of a fair and peaceful society.
 CIJP, 30 años por la vida en un bello existir – Comisión Justicia y Paz, April 13, 2018
 Texto de la declaración de la ZH Nueva Esperanza, El proceso de resistencia civil en Colombia: La experiencia de las Zonas Humanitarias, 26 de marzo 2007