“Say something in Scottish!” eager faces gather round and I manage to get a few words out in English before someone calls me out and they all start giggling. “Eso es inglés” scoffs one of the girls before starting to count out loud the number of people in the room, “one, two, three, four…”.
Today the total reaches twenty-one including the three month old baby whose name Luz means light. It’s easter week and I’m spending it in a small holding farm in Bajo Atrato, in the Urabá region of Colombia. My field volunteer partner from France and I are here for five days accompanying the family of Mario Castaño, a land reclaimant and community leader who was brutally assasinated in front of his wife, adult children and grandchildren in their family home in November 2017. They’ve been displaced in a nearby town ever since and only return to the family farm with the accompaniment of CIJP (the InterChurch Commission for Justice and Peace, one of the organizations that PBI has accompanied for the longest in Colombia) and PBI.
Mario Castaños Bravo was forcibly displaced from the region in the late 1990s, in the era the locals call “the violence” when paramilitary groups worked hand-in-hand with the government armed forces to displace the rural population under the guise of fighting the FARC guerrillas that were present in the area. Shortly after, with the area cleared of small scale farmers and guerrilla forces pushed back to the mountains, large scale businesses moved in, destroying the ecosystem by cutting down the forests and draining wetlands to install huge plantations of plantains and palm oil. When Mario and other displaced people returned in the early 2000s the landscape was almost unrecognisable. With the support of CIJP he was able to bring his family to reclaim their land, reconfiguring it under the figure of a “humanitarian zone” and to help other communities in the process of land reclamation, actions which put him at great risk and that would ultimately cost him his life.
Our accompaniment in the field is as often as much centered on the emotional well-being of individuals as their physical integrity. While our logoed t-shirts and the PBI flags that we put up when we enter a community, and the work we do advocating the cases within high level government both within Colombia and internationally allow us to visibilise our presence and affect change, our role as field volunteers additionally provides moral support and solidarity. This week is a time of great nostalgia for the family, the air is peppered with anecdotes about Mario, placing him in the landscape that he loved so much. It’s also a time of uncertainty: who is going to lead the community now, when might they be able to return, are further reprisals imminent? In the middle of the night the dogs start barking and startled awake I can feel the tension in the air until people relax and fall back asleep.
The next day Mario’s widow tells me that she didn’t sleep the rest of the night – despite our presence, despite the other twenty people present in the tiny house in hammocks, tumbled together in beds and on the floor around about her. It reminds us that each attack on human rights defenders affects the social fabric of the communities and families they leave behind. Processes are interrupted, and the fear of repetition often means that new leaders can be reluctant to step in and can leave communities vulnerable to further human rights abuses.
On the last morning after a night of swingin hammocks listening to a chorus of frogs, crickets and the occasional snore, we pack up our hammocks and make our way together with the family traversing paths through the surrounding business owners’ plantations back to the main road. A large SUV with tinted windows, the armed protection scheme that the government has provided for Mario’s widow, is waiting to take them back to the town where they’re currently displaced. We say goodbye with promises to stay in touch by phone and take motorbike taxis to begin our journey back to our base.