After a five month quarantine, PBI Colombia returned to the field accompanying the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission. The accompaniment was a 15 day journey following the footprints of memory and opening space for peasant, Afro-descendant, and indigenous communities of Urabá to meet with Truth Commissioner Patricia Tobón.
Caracolón – A tree of life, a tree that doesn’t forget
It took months to adapt the work of defending human rights to the quarantine. Months of online meetings, reports from the field, virtual hearings, and, all of this was dependent on the will of each persons signal, especially in the countryside. These were months of observing from afar a resistance that, in rural Colombia, did not have the opportunity to rest. In the context of an uncontrollable pandemic, and in spite of an intensified conflict, the Commission of Justice and Peace (JyP) sought out ways to continue accompanying the communities. On 15 August, after weeks on adapting biosafety protocols and waiting for the specific permits to be authorized, a caravan of six vehicles reached the rural community of Caracolón, just a few kilometers from Dabeiba, Antioquia. These cars transported Truth Commissioner Patricia Tobón, human rights defender and national JyP coordinator, Danilo Rueda, and a multidisciplinary team from the same NGO. The NGO has been anxious to restart its work, focused on legal accompaniment, awareness raising, and providing support to the communities they have been accompanying for over 20 years.
In pictures: It hurts to remember, it hurts us more to forget
This rural community sits in the foothills of the Nudo de Paramillo, and youth and seniors from the Community for Life and Work La Balsita awaited the visitors. “It hurts to remember but it hurts even more to forget.” This phrase welcomed the delegation as it gathered in the community meeting space, giving testimony to this communities’ unshakable will to tell their story. The commissioner listened to the stories, the pain, and the hope that these brave women and men placed in her hands. These are women whose struggle has never ended, men who continue to dream of recovering their lands.
The Humanitarian Zone of the Community of Life and Work La Balsita, located in Dabeiba County, was created by 22 families displaced from the Nudo del Paramillo by the Self-defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá –ACCU, in November 1997. Between the 24th and 28th of November, 1997, in the rural communities of La Balsita and Antazales, the ACCU, with the complicity of the Colombian National Army’s 9th Brigade, murdered and disappeared more than 143 people and displaced another 400.1 After several months in temporary shelters, the families who make up the Community of Life and Work La Balsita decided to create a Humanitarian Zone in the rural area called Caracolón, five kilometeres from the county seat of Dabeiba. Since then, they have never tired of demanding truth, justice, and reparation. Last year, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), born out of the Havana Peace Agreements, accredited the Community of Life and Work La Balsita as a collective victim, granting it a special participation role.2 A month after, the community opened its doors to the Memory Festival and its participants, including ex-combatants from the FARC-EP and former members of the military. This was a powerful exercise in forgiveness and reconciliation.3
As peasants displaced from their fertile lands, the Community of Life and Work La Balsita grows passion fruit, cucumbers, and memories. They have built their homes next to two gigantic Caracolí (Wild Cashew) trees, centuries-old sanctuaries that hold, amid their roots, the memory of those disappeared and murdered during the years of violence.
The fact that the JEP began exhumations in the Dabeiba cemetery4 at the beginning of this year and the possibility that high-level paramilitary commanders like Salvatore Mancuso could contribute to the truth5 brings some hope to this activist community. Nevertheless, neither the JEP, nor the Truth Commission have found the answer to their most pressing question, who will give them their lands back, in an area still controlled by armed actors?6 “Twenty-two years later we are still waiting to return to our home, I’m not saying that it is bad here, but this is not my land and my dream is for my children to return to our farm to live their lives.”7