Truth and Memory in the Bajo Atrato region

The Festival of Truth is an initiative of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz – J&P), aimed at building peace in Colombian territories. The idea came from the communities themselves as a contribution to rebuilding memory and re-telling the truth about what happened in the territories during the armed conflict. The Festival promotes reconciliation through knowledge exchange, and through clarifying the facts, recognising responsibilities and asking for forgiveness, and guaranteeing that the tragedies and human rights violations are not repeated.


This year the first edition of the Festival of Memory took place in the Eco Peace Village of Nueva Esperanza en Dios in the collective territory of Cacarica (in the north of the Chocó department). Five such festivals are planned, as part of the processes to commemorate the five different collective territories in the Bajo Atrato region. These communities, which have been historically affected by the armed conflict through numerous operations of the former FARC-EP guerrilla, the paramilitaries and the Colombian state army, continue to struggle for the defence of their territories and the dignity of their small-scale farming, collective way of life. The Afro-descendant and indigenous peoples who live in this territory also struggle to maintain their ancestral cultures in the face of external economic interests[1].

This year, the Bajo Atrato region has once again found itself caught in the centre of conflict: territorial control by illegal armed groups, threats to social leaders, recruitment of young people, armed combat between illegal armed groups and the confinement of indigenous peoples who face a serious humanitarian situation[2]. Nevertheless, the communities maintain their hope and resilience to defend peace in their territories, through art, education and dance.


Chapter 1: Cacarica and the inauguration of the Peace University

At the end of February, during the commemoration of 22 years since Operation Genesis, which led to the forced displacement of more than 10 thousand people, the first Festival of Memory was held. At the same time, the first training module was launched at the “Marino López” Peace University, where workshops and classes will be given on environmental issues and other subjects.

The Festival also aims to enable acts of recognition and restorative justice, by holding meetings in which people “responsible” for human rights violations and people “affected” by them can enter into dialogue and seek pathways to reconciliation.

Many people from different parts of the country have travelled here to participate in the Festival (from Putumayo to the Caribbean, passing by Valle del Cauca), from different organisations, the press, etc. The warm welcome from the Cacarica community was extremely moving, with song and dance, music and delicious food.


In the presence of Lucía González, the Truth Commissioner, the first conversations took place in which people who have demobilised from different legal and illegal armed groups, and their family members, shared their stories, recognised facts and asked for forgiveness. One of the community members told us that they had heard their own heartbeat while listening to the testimonies, because of the importance of this historic moment, in which hopes for peace are being reborn. This is in spite of continuous threats from the Gaitanist Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), who seek control over all the territories.

That is why the communities  want to propose restorative justice activities as part of the reconciliation work they are promoting because what they want is to live in peace. As one of the women leaders from the territory told us “when a person causes damage, it is because their heart has become ill, and if they go to prison, when they come out their heart will not be healed. That is why we want the people who are responsible for human rights violations to come here, get to know the community, the countryside, work on the land with us and look for a way to heal their heart”.

During the two days of the Festival of Memory, several resilience experiences were presented, as well as the work of young people who are demanding that their rights are respected and working to build peace. The educational project of the Peace University (Uni Paz) was also presented, which includes training modules on issues related to community knowledge, the countryside, context analysis, and other subjects. During the inauguration, Yohana from J&P commented that the University “will enable us to analyse reality and build a better society, it is a proposal which works alongside the implementation of the Peace Agreement, as we walk along pathways to peace, and it is a space where we can hear each other, recognise each other beyond the labels of victims and perpetrators, but instead as affected people and responsible people”.

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Henri, the educational coordinator in Cacarica, emphasised enthusiastically that “this will be a space where we can dismantle the culture of war. A space where we will join together and not exclude each other. The aim of the University is to create a new society, to create a space to respect ourselves and respect nature, a space in which those who used to be perpetrators, can come in and participate. What we want is to transform men and women through education, so that together we can heal this pain”. Jani Silva, leader from the “La Perla Amazónica” Small-Scale Farming Reserve Area in Putumayo, was also present and highlighted the commitment of her community to this reconciliation exercise, “hatred and resentment does not help us. We have to think about forgiveness, but we must not forget, because when we forget, we repeat. For that reason we want to analyse what happened to us and how we can leave the violence behind”.


The Festival ended with the inauguration of a training module, related to working with recycled plastic, and afterwards there was a cultural event, bringing the first Festival of Memory to a close.

Nathalie Bienfait


[1] Verdad Abierta: El Atrato: dos décadas de guerra, 23 November 2014; Paola Garcia Reyes: Tierra, palma africana y conflicto armado en el Bajo Atrato chocoano, Colombia. Una lectura desde el cambio en los órdenes de extracción, Scielo, 6 November 2013

[2] Caracol: Se agudiza crisis humanitaria en el Medio y Bajo Atrato del Chocó, 28 March 2019

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