A journey through memory

It is always a really emotional moment. As soon as we arrive at “La Holandita”, the main settlement of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community we are filled with memories and the energy of Luis Eduardo, Bellanira, Deiner, Alfonso, Sandra, Natalia, Santiago and Alejandro, and their energy follows us throughout the whole journey and this commemoration.

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Fifteen years have passed since that terrible 21 February[1], in 2005. The Peace Community have invited several international institutions and members of the diplomatic corps so they can listen to memories and stories from the territory where the tragedy occurred and so that they can feel that energy. The paths in Mulatos and La Resbalosa, where the massacre occurred, are about six or seven hours away in the beautiful mountains of San José de Apartadó, so the pilgrimage begins with an act of remembrance in La Holandita[2].

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Members of the eace community together with representatives – political and human rights secretary of the Embassies of United Kingdom and Germany, and representatives of the ONU Peace Mission II in Colombia

On the first day, representatives from the Embassies of Germany and the United Kingdom arrive, along with a delegation from the UN Mission II. Also present is a delegation from the Mayor’s Office in Westerloo, a Belgian city that has supported the Peace Community since 2008. We meet at the kiosk where Germán Graciano, legal representative of the Peace Community, kicks off the event recalling the importance of memory, this work carried out by the Peace Community to never forget the persecution and attacks against the brave people who joined this process to reject the use of violence and pressure from armed actors who were involving them in an armed conflict that they did not want, and with which they did not identify. The Peace Community fights for its lands and its right to territory and natural resources, but never through violence.

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Father Javier Giraldo

Father Javier Giraldo, who has accompanied the Peace Community since its inception, is also present and wears the shirt that the Peace Community printed for this pilgrimage. He reminds us of the entire journey that the Peace Community has made, its resistance and resilience, and the terrible years they have lived through since they united and declared themselves neutral under the name of Peace Community. The commemorated massacre was a point of no return that transformed the Peace Community forever. From that moment on they rejected dialogue with a State[3] that would not let them live in peace, that did not listen to their requests for justice and protection. After the massacre they were also stigmatised as guerrillas by the government[4]. They also moved and installed in “La Holandita”. They had to leave the urban centre of San José de Apartadó after a police post was installed there and the Community rejected coexistence with armed actors. The Peace Community opted for another model of life and resistance in the midst of violence, and has remained a really united community.

The human rights defence lawyer, Germán Romero, is also present during the event. He took the floor and recalls the difficult path of truth and justice that began after he discovered the mutilated bodies of loved ones from the Peace Community. He remembers Luis Eduardo Guerra, a great historical leader, his family, the four minors who had nothing to do with the armed conflict. There has been progress, it is true. Last year the Supreme Court convicted six soldiers who had participated in the massacre[5]. But the Peace Community does not understand why this case is being heard by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP)[6]. For them the massacre did not occur as part of the armed conflict, but rather in the context of persecution against them for having declared themselves neutral in the face of the armed conflict.

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The other problem that the Peace Community is facing today, which they also want to explain to the international community, is related to the ownership of their community lands. Some lands were given to them 20 years ago and others were wastelands where they have sown and tended cocoa and food crops. One of these land areas is the “Luis Eduardo Guerra” Peace Village in the village of Mulatos. A small territory that has become a sacred place for the community, from the moment they found the dismembered bodies of Luis Eduardo, his partner Bellanira and his 11-year-old son, Deiner. Three months after the events, members of the Peace Community returned to this site, cut down some trees and built a wooden chapel in the exact place where the bodies were found. Then little by little they built houses, a library and a school bearing the name of the prominent leader, as well as a shop and other facilities. They placed a border around this property with fences, and they often meet here for annual pilgrimages and for community assemblies, among other activities. This year they finished the dome of the chapel in the precise place where they found the bodies, and where Father Javier Giraldo performs commemoration masses. Taking away this small piece of land would be a new, serious blow to the Peace Community, hard to really understand from outside[7].

After the presentations, the Peace Community organise a walk to the site in San José de Apartadó where they declared themselves to be a Peace Community on 23 March 1997. The boys and girls lead the walk, with banners calling for justice for the two boys and one girl killed on 21 February 2005, and also with messages claiming their rights to territory and natural resources against economic interests: “No to Mining”, “Pure Air”, “Right to Water and Life”. It is hard to believe that once again there are attempts to destroy an ecosystem[8] like the jungles of San José de Apartadó, one of Mother Nature’s treasures. Is this the reason why they are trying to take the Peace Village from the Community? Or is this a renewed attempt to erase the memory of the Peace Community? Recent times have shown us that protecting, recognising and valuing memory does not suit everyone … It seems as though everything is a struggle, but the Peace Community does not give up.

This first day ends with words of recognition from the guests and a community lunch. Then the preparations for the next day begin, when we are set to accompany the Peace Community to Mulatos and La Resbalosa.

Journey to Mulatos and La Resbalosa

The road to Mulatos is a little difficult, you have to climb several hills under the tropical Urabá sun but you can also enjoy a unique landscape: an abundant untouched green jungle. One of the Belgians who accompany this walk tells me that it is one of the most beautiful landscapes he has ever seen. Some people are riding on mules and others go on foot. After going uphill for about two hours we begin our descent, which is a little easier.

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Have a look at the Photo Gallery of this journey here.

For accompaniments in these villages, PBI has bought a mule who we share between the accompanying brigadistas. His name is Tostao, and he is rather stubborn but also affectionate. He stops every now and then to eat but with a little shout he follows the path again. The mules know the way by heart and move quickly on the paths between stones and mud. The crossing can be a bit of a shock for those who are not used to travelling by mule on such narrow roads. But the members of the Peace Community are accustomed to it, as from the moment they can walk they also learn to ride horses, so they support and care for us.

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Tostao, our mule

That day we arrive at Mulatos at 4 in the afternoon, and they receive us with some homemade lemonade. We settle in, rest in our hammocks and then have dinner together. The skies in Mulatos are the kind of sky that light up with thousands of stars, which we no longer see in cities, accompanied by dancing fireflies. As you listen to the music of the crickets, without a mobile phone signal, you reconnect with the present moment and live every minute intensely. We sleep early because the Community always gets up early at sunrise.

The next day is 21February. At 7.30 in the morning, approximate time of the first massacre – that of Luis Eduardo and his family – Father Javier Giraldo begins the Mass. They have prepared an altar in the new dome. Father Giraldo recalls the facts: Luis Eduardo, a resident of San José, was in Mulatos collecting cocoa to sell it and get some money to pay for treatment for his son Deiner, victim of a landmine that took his mother’s life and damaged his leg. They were walking along the river when, according to the testimonies of convicted soldiers and paramilitaries[9], some soldiers left the woods where they were hiding, detained them and forced them to climb up the banks of the river to the forest where they were murdered by machete blows. Father Javier remembers Luis Eduardo Guerra as a great self-taught leader of the Peace Community who spent his free time reading and training and knew how to defend himself using international humanitarian law[10]. Father Giraldo remembers those days, when Gildardo, historical leader of the Peace Community, called him every two hours to tell him that they still had no news of Luis Eduardo and that they were worried because they thought something serious could have happened to him. Father Giraldo quickly organised himself and travelled to San José de Apartadó. A humanitarian mission was carried out, composed of more than 100 people and international accompaniers.

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At that time Mulatos was almost uninhabited. The fighting between armed actors had trapped the villagers and forced them to leave their lands and belongings. But as I mentioned earlier, after this massacre, the Peace Community returned there and built the Peace Village.

After this first emotional mass, the delegation goes up to the village of La Resbalosa, an hour and a long walk away, climbing further through the jungle. We arrive at the family home of Alfonso Bolívar, abandoned and demolished, another symbolic and sacred place for the Peace Community. About 100 metres from there is the wooden chapel where we meet for the second mass. At 12 noon, the time of the second massacre, Father Giraldo begins to tell what happened that day.

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The chapel was built in the place where they found the dismembered bodies of the whole family, buried in a pit, at the foot of a cocoa tree. During the telling of the events, Doña Brígida, sitting next to me, is inconsolable. Although the years help to heal some wounds, this one is still very much alive. They still don’t understand why they killed the boys and the girl. Robert, a PBI from the time of the massacre and who accompanied the international verification mission, has come for the commemoration and also shares his memories of that day which has changed him forever. Emotion floods us. After prayers and text readings, the boys and girls share songs written in memory of the victims. Germán Graciano ends the act with a few words about the work of the Peace Community to conserve memory, reject violence and highlights the importance for the Community to conserve the Peace Village so they can keep holding their remembrance rituals, which they consider essential for the non-repetition of these events.

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On the way back I have the honour of talking with Father Javier Giraldo who shares his memories. He remembers that on 21 February the Prosecutor’s Office could not arrive because the Army denied them the use of a helicopter. He recalls the struggle to reclaim the dignity of the victims after they were smeared as guerrilla fighters, which was totally false. Father Giraldo is over 70 years old and walks through the mountains of San José better than us, full of incomparable and inspiring energy. We go back down to Mulatos in silence. We share the last communal dinner of this pilgrimage and some songs around a campfire. Despite the huge blows, the Peace Community remains hopeful, cheerful and above all united and firm in its principles.

Have a look of the Foto gallery of this journey, here.

Nathalie Bienfait

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Nathalie (PBI) together with Father Javier Giraldo and German Graciano (legal representative of the Peace Community)

[1] See Semana: ¿Por qué mataron a los niños?, 4 November 2009

[2] 19 February 2020

[3] They have named four conditions to returning to dialogue: that the police post is removed from the urban centre of San José de Apartadó, that an independent commission is established to evaluate the Colombian justice system, that humanitarian refuges are recognised for the civilian population, and that former President Uribe retracts his statements and apologises for the stigmatisation against the Peace Community after the massacre

[4] Semana: “Uribe mancilló la honra de Apartadó”, 29 May 2013

[5] El Tiempo: Histórica condena por masacre ‘para’ en San José de Apartadó, 12 May 2019; CdP: A veces una sentencia de excepción condena lo que el Estado practica como rutina, 10 June 2019

[6] El Espectador: Masacre de San José de Apartadó, otro caso en manos de la JEP, 26 January 2020

[7] CdP: El Paramilitarismo busca servirse de las juntas comunales e implantar el Memoricidio, 26 December 2019

[8] See report by the Agencia de Prensa IPC: ¿Que no hay paramilitares en Rodoxalí? En San José de Apartadó dicen lo contrario, 8 November 2016 ; CdP: Apartadó bajo el ordenamiento territorial y político del paramilitarismo, 31 July 2018

[9] El Espectador: Condenan a 20 años de cárcel a capitán Gordillo, por masacre de San José de Apartadó, 16 March 2010 ; Verdad Abierta: General (r) Fandiño a versión libre por la masacre de San José de Apartadó, 6 December 2010

[10] See Semana: ¿Por qué mataron a los niños?, 4 November 2009


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