“After hearing your testimonies, it is really clear to me that the biggest problem you face is related to land and security”. These were the words of the Ambassador of Denmark, Mogens Pedersen, after listening closely for several hours to testimonies by community representatives from the Bajo Atrato region during a mission on 13 June to the Nueva Esperanza Humanitarian Zone in the Jiguamiandó River basin. The mission was comprised of five embassies, including the Danish Ambassador and Irish Ambassador Alison Milton, as well as political advisors from the British, Norwegian and Netherlands Embassies. Also participating in the Verification Mission were the UN, the MAPP/OAS, Christian Aid, the Colombian Human Rights Committee from the United States and PBI. The objective of the mission was to see and hear first-hand the situation of insecurity and its consequences for the lives of the communities in the Bajo Atrato region. This visit by the diplomatic corps also aimed to support the work of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz), which accompanies community processes in the Bajo Atrato region and which in the last few months has been the victim of serious threats due to their work in the region.
The mission to the Bajo Atrato region is important because of the worsening armed conflict in the region and particularly in Jiguamiandó, where since 16 February this year there have been several incursions by members of the neo-paramilitary group known as the Gaitanist Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), and armed combat between the AGC and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrilla group, which have left the communities in a situation of confinement with the direct consequence of making it difficult to access to crops and food sources, as well as access to health services, which is leading to a serious humanitarian crisis in the area.
The majority of embassies participating in the mission had already taken part in a breakfast meeting in Bogotá in the month of March with leaders from the Bajo Atrato, during which they committed to going to see the situation in the field. During the breakfast and also during the mission, the leaders expressed their concern about the lack of State civilian institutions, which should be present to guarantee the minimum security guarantees for communities.
The mission to the Nueva Esperanza Humanitarian Zone left early in the morning from the city of Apartadó, with logistical support from the UN Verification Mission and the MAPP/OAS. After a four hour journey we arrived at Nueva Esperanza, and were welcomed by some 50 children dressed in white and waving white flags bearing the message “the children and young people of the “Nueva Esperanza” Humanitarian Zone welcome you”. Each person walked among the flags amid this warm welcome from the children. In an area where the conflict is all too present, this welcome and the colour white as a symbol of peace were really moving.
We immediately went to the school hall where the leaders were waiting for us, from the different Bajo Atrato river basins, including Curbaradó, Jiguamiandó, Bajo Cañaveral, Cacarica and also Dabeiba in Antioquia. Each leader received us wearing a label containing their name and the community they represent. This was a moment to greet each person and connect with them face to face, to see beyond the different reports on the situation of violence in the area, to see that in the conflict there are human faces, each with their own story, and that we were here to listen to them.
Straight away the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission, who organised the activity with the community representatives, presented a short description of the context in the area and noted the serious security situation in the Bajo Atrato region, closely and largely linked to the land restitution processes that the communities are engaged in to recover their lands which were expropriated from them. Next to take the floor was Manuel Blandón, the legal representative of the Jiguamiandó community council. Manuel welcomed the mission and expressed how important it is that representatives of the international community visit the regions and can share what they hear with the Colombian Government because they do not have that kind of access. Manuel also presented the risk situation in the Nueva Esperanza Humanitarian Zone due to the regular presence of illegal armed actors. “The land restitution process is frozen” explained Manuel. In 2004 the Constitutional Court via Sentence T-025 declared the existence of an unconstitutional state of affairs, noting the lack of attention to the population displaced by violence in the cases of Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó. To date the Court has issued 8 Follow-up Orders regarding compliance with the orders it made for the concrete cases of Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó, but they have not been implemented.
During the event we also heard from Argemiro Bailarin from the Urada indigenous territory in Alto Guayabal. Argemiro focused on the issue of infiltration by illegal armed groups in communities, which makes it difficult to create trust in these same communities. Another problem is that many leaders in the indigenous territory have been stigmatised as being members of the ELN and that a number of people in the territory (around 22) are on a death threat list of alleged ELN members.
Anita from the Nueva Vida community in Cacarica also shared with us her risk situation, focusing on the problem of sexual violence suffered by women from the communities committed by members of illegal armed groups. She also stated that there is a strategy by these groups to become involved with young girls from the communities so that they can access information and exercise social control.
For more than three hours we listened to community representatives repeat over and over again that their security problems are mainly caused by the presence of neo-paramilitary groups and in particular the AGC and that the State does nothing to confront this situation. Due to the lack of security guarantees from the state security forces in the area, they insisted that any security force presence must be maintained at the community perimeters as entering communities could place them at greater risk.
Throughout the event the diplomatic corps representatives listened attentively and expressed their serious concerns about the lack of security in the communities, and the fact that the Bajo Atrato situation sadly alerts us to the consequences of the lack of compliance with the peace agreement. They also expressed concern about the lack of action by the State to confront the land restitution situation and committed to monitor these cases upon their return to Bogotá.
Once the meeting was finished and the rain reminded us of the difficult access to these communities, especially in the rainy season, we thought about the huge effort that the community representatives had made to travel to the Nueva Esperanza Humanitarian Zone to share the risk situations they each face on a daily basis. Sharing the community lunch, speaking with the community representatives, and watching the young people’s theatre performances reaffirmed for us the importance of guaranteeing the right to land and security for these communities committed to an alternative to violence in Colombia.
During the return journey to Apartadó the members of the diplomatic corps confirmed their commitment to follow-up on the mission. In fact, for example, the Danish Ambassador, Mogens Pedersen, has already held a meeting with the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission in their offices in Bogotá, to specifically monitor the Bajo Atrato land restitution cases, and the Commission’s risk situation due to its work in the Bajo Atrato and in other regions of the country.