Under the blue chapel roof and under the gaze of their dead, on Sunday 24 February, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó met for the first time with the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Co-Existence and Non-Repetition. After a minute’s silence in memory of the numerous members of the Community killed during the armed conflict, Francisco de Roux, the President of the Commission, thanked the community for their struggle and courage.
The Truth Commission was created under the Peace Agreement between the Colombian State and the FARC guerrilla, and is mandated to clarify and recognise human rights violations committed during the armed conflict, and to promote the wide participation of victims and society. For the next three years, the Commission will travel around the most affected regions in the country to listen to and compile testimony from the Colombian population, with the aim of creating guarantees of non-repetition and conditions for reconciliation.
“We believe in true reconciliation. We do not feel hatred or want revenge, what we hold onto is our memory.”
That is how Germán Graciano, legal representative of the Peace Community, describes the Community’s capacity to promote peaceful co-existence, without forgetting what has happened. The meeting with the Truth Commission offered an opportunity for the Community to tell their truth, to contribute to an inclusive version of memory, to counteract the idea of one single story in the country. What is the Community’s story?
The Peace Community was founded in 1997, a moment in which the FARC and paramilitary groups were fighting for control of the land and its resources, to the detriment of small-scale producers who were killed and displaced from their lands. Within this violent scenario, small-scale producers from the San José de Apartadó area and its surrounding villages decided to join together so that they could remain in their lands, without becoming involved in other people’s conflicts. And that is how it all began, as a project for an alternative way of living outside of the armed conflict, built and maintained by people who believed in a dignified life free from violence.
Doña Brígida, one of the Community’s founders and historic leaders, says that this process has been the fruit of a great deal of “work, pain and serenity”. This combination has lead to the creation of working groups to ensure the Community’s sustainability, in terms of food sovereignty and alternative education for young people, as well as other initiatives, all based on community work, offering the community mutual protection and support.
Nevertheless, the threats and attacks continue. More than 300 people from the Community have been killed to date and the Colombian State does not seem to have developed an effective response to recognise and protect these people. Indeed, Father de Roux highlighted “the massive blow dealt by the State to the community’s chosen form of co-existence”. According to the Community, there is an “extermination plan” against them and that is why they have not held any dialogue with State institutions since February 2005, after the massacre of 8 people from the villages of Mulatos and La Resbalosa.
That is why this meeting with the Truth Commission was so meaningful, and also why the community expressed both hope and scepticism. On the one hand, they thanked the Commission for their efforts to listen and compile their story. They also appreciated the aim of making visible the community’s journey, not only in terms of their suffering but also highlighting the dignity of their life project. On the other hand, they could not help feeling doubtful about the capacity of the Commission to change this situation of injustice and oppression which cannot simply be relegated to the past. The story they have to tell also belongs to the here-and-now and to the future.
One member of the Community used the opportunity to thank international solidarity initiatives, saying that they have always listened, understood and supported them. “We need friendships that have nothing to do with money”. PBI has been accompanying and learning from the Peace Community since 1999, and given the current situation of smears, threats and paramilitary presence, they continue to need our accompaniment. At the same time, the Community is continuing their journey towards Peace until they find “the tranquillity that was stolen from them”.
Maite Aguirrezabal and Coline Sovran