When the motor boat left the Turbo port to cross the Gulf of Urabá, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who, almost 20 years ago, were starting a journey to return to their lands. Lands they had been displaced from in 1997, during the Genesis operation.1
The sea was rough, as if to remind us that the conflict continues in the territory we are headed to. In fact, at the end of the last year, the community denounced the presence of AGC informants in the Nueva Vida (New Life) Humanitarian Zone and an increase in armed troops from this illegal armed group.2
Our journey continued along the dark waters of the Atrato River, the Cacarica River, and the Perrancho River, until we reached “La Tapa,” just like during the return. It can’t imagine what those first people felt in their hearts when they made this trip, not knowing what awaited them.
We knew what awaited us. It was a two hour hike from “La Tapa,” since it is dry season and the river is low. At the end of our journey we would reach the Humanitarian Zone –a community fortified by 20 years of resistance– in the middle of the jungle and the violence, a lunch prepared with food from the territory, in short, a wealth and dignity that the community defends with its body and soul, in spite of the threats that surround them.
We are genesis, 23 years
The fifth edition of the Memory Festival was held, for the second time, in Cacarica. The first edition was celebrated a year before at the Nueva Esperanza en Dios (New Hope in God) Humanitarian Zone. They had been the host community for an historic hearing of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.3 This year, the Truth Commission, representatives of communities in resistance, international observers, as well as ex-combatants from the FARC-EP and ex-military, had answered the communities’ invitation to jointly reflect on the concept of reconciliation. As the community’s children reminded everyone, reconciliation requires truth. During a cultural performance, they asked the public: “Who gave the order? Who benefited from the territory being abandoned? What are the foundations for reconciliation?” So many questions for just one night. Nevertheless, a lot was shared that night, using words – a discussion among the communities, parties to the conflict, and the reconciliation institution4–- and culture, including dances and songs performed by the communities that had come from all over Colombia.
The next day, after only a few hours of sleep, the Festival’s participant began the long journey back to their communities, cities, and countries with the unique recollection that they had experienced Memory in this place. That morning, I said goodbye to my travel companions and watched them leave in the early morning light. I thought about all the brigadistas before me, who had stayed in this river basin when everyone else left. Since 2000, dozens of PBI’s volunteers from different countries have shared daily life with the Nueva Vida community.
This daily resistance begins early by bathing in the river. It also means washing last nights dishes and taking in a cool breeze before the days suffocating heat sets in. Then, the day is divided between different tasks, all equally important: making some food, taking a walk around the community and visiting with its members –an essential activity to find out what is happening in the river basin, meeting to organize community life, and playing dominoes or cards, depending on the day. During the time we shared day-to-day life in Nueva Vida, we got to know Cacarica’s historic figures of resistance, beginning with the women.
“They are beautiful with strong character. They have big smiles that are constantly portrayed across their faces. Their hair is braided and they dress in bright colors that contrast with the intense black of their skin. They live under a sky full of stars, that they wouldn’t change for anything.” The women of Cacarica
In the shade of their homes, the inhabitants of Nueva Vida share their stories with us. Among them, the singer-composer of the community hymn, Oyeme Chocó tells us about her advocacy trips abroad, the teachers tell us about their childhood adventures, and men and women leaders offer us pieces of their history.
The day flies by even among the drowsy Cacarica afternoons. It would be easy to forget what surrounds us. Nevertheless, 20 years after returning, the army continues to be omnipresent in the river basin. This armed presence and the helicopters that fly over head make it impossible to forget the war that continues in this territory. Since the beginning of this year, the community has not stopped denouncing the social and territorial control of the neo-paramilitary group Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), using different strategies: illegal censuses, economic “aid” that leaves people indebted to the armed actors, the recruitment of youth, harassment, threats, and an imposition of the law of silence.5
The new context faced by Colombia amid the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be an excuse to push aside communities like Cacarica that have endured confinement for years, due to the violent actions of armed groups which, combined with the lack of presence from civil State institutions, has left them in a highly vulnerable situation without guarantees of security.
On 29 June, 2002 the inhabitants of Cacarica, along with several other communities and organizations, signed a document where they declared: “We remain in Cacarica as an affirmation of our rights, in spite of the isolation, the military and humanitarian blockades, the accusations […].” Nevertheless, “we continue to have hope that we will achieve our dream of a world where all peoples come together –the men and women victims or those in solidarity with the victims–, who amid a full on war and a market economy that is against the world’s people, we can continue our efforts to construct Self-determination, Life, and Dignity.”6
Almost 20 years have past since those words were written and these people continue waiting for the moment when that dream is fulfilled.
Volunteer in Uraba
1 CIJP, Operación Génesis, 24 February, 2020
2 CIJP, Paramilitares se toman la Zona Humanitaria Nueva Vida, 18 December, 2019
3 PBI Colombia, Historic JEP Hearing in Cacarica, 7 March, 2019
4 Comisión de la Verdad, Cacarica: 23 años construyendo paz, 13 March, 2020
5 CIJP, Vergonsoza operació militar enfrente de las AGC, 8 January, 2020
6 Somos Tierra de esta Tierra: Memoria de una resistencia civil, CAVIDA, 2002