It is water that receives us in the Bajo Atrato region for our first trip to the area after five months. We had just spent three days in Dabeiba and that was just the beginning of our journey. After crossing the Curvaradó River, we reached the Camelias Humanitarian Zone (HZ), where men and women leaders from all over the river basin had met, in spite of the threats that are part of their day-to-day life.
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.
There we met Liria Rosa García, a historic leader from the Caracolí HZ, who, in early August, was pushed off her lands by another family supported by the Curvaradó Community Council.1 Eliodoro Polo was also there. He is leader of the Pedeguita and Mancilla collective territory, and days after our visit he received a threatening message, which made it clear that he should hand over his farm and leave the area.2 These kinds of incidents are not new and they demonstrate the persistence of this major pressure on communities in the Bajo Atrato in relation to their lands.
Nevertheless, these people, who have never tired of defending their territory, are willing to share their stories with the Truth Commissioner Patricia Tobón. The clouds are building and the dusk sky turns dark. Rain makes it impossible to record their testimonies until late that night, but that doesn’t prevent their truth from being told, even if it is in the middle of the night. Accounts of the past and the present are weaved together because the symbolic date of 2016, when the Peace Agreement was signed between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP, is not a date that marked a new era in the Bajo Atrato. On the contrary, since 2016, the spaces abandoned by the FARC-EP have been under a major dispute between illegal armed groups, such as the Gaitanista Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) or the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas.3
The next day, the sky is clear but the previous night’s heavy rains have left us a surprise. In order to get to the Nueva Esperanza (New Hope) HZ, in the Jiguamiandó river basin, which neighbors Curvaradó, it will be necessary to get our feet wet…
The Nueva Esperanza HZ has flooded. The waters of the Jiguamiandó River flow over stories of the past, over threats all too present, over hopes for tomorrow. Don Erasmo, a historic leader from Jiguamiandó, welcomes the visitors: “When we were in Bogotá, we delivered a report to the JEP4 and the Truth Commission. One thing is to learn my name from a piece of paper. Another thing is to see where I am from, so I can show you my territory.” Jiguamiandó is multicultural. Along its waters live mestizo (or racially mixed), Afro-descendant, and Embera Eyabida indigenous communities. Several people have traveled to Nueva Esperanza to contribute to the truth.
In an action to heal their territory, the communities have eradicated close to 150 hectares of coca leaf, which has made things very risky for them.
The local indigenous government of the Uradá-Jiguamiandó Reserve sees this gathering as a possibility to increase visibility on the situation faced by its communities. At the beginning of July 2020, their assembly decided to eradicate the coca leaf planted by people from outside their territory, people who ignored the Major Indigenous Council’s authority. In an action to heal their territory, the communities have eradicated close to 150 hectares of coca leaf,5 which has made things very risky for them.6 The secretary of the Major Indigneous Council, Dayro Alberto Cuñapa, tells me “For us, it is important to protect the territory. It is our oxygen. It is sacred. Our memory is in our elders’ stories, as well as in the medicine, the territory’s native plants. We hope to take advantage of this friendship between peoples to defend it and build peace.”
Don Erasmo, with his 79 years of life and almost as many of struggle, is lucid. “This war continues and we do not know how long it will go on. The government thinks that it has remedied everything, but I have lost so much, they even burned my house.” His lucidity does not prevent him from believing in forgiveness and reparation. Last year, for the first time, he met with a former commander of the FARC-EP who years before had sworn to murder him. “Well, we said hello.” Don Erasmo dreams of leaving an legacy, a Peace University for his community’s youth, where professors from the community itself can transmit their history.
The words of Don Erasmo, the Major Indigenous Council of Uradá-Jiguamiandó, and of all the communities that look to live in peace in a territory hit so hard by the war, were collected by the Commission of Justice and Peace during the visit, as they have been during the past 20 years. As part of this tireless work of reconciliation by the communities of Urabá, victims of the armed conflict, a historic dialogue was organised in Apartadó on 31 August, in which Salvatore Mancuso participated virtually. The former paramilitary chief, who recently finished a 15-year prison sentence in the United States, showed his willingness to contribute to truth and reconciliation by answering the questions put to him by those present7.
In each community that we visited, the Commission of Justice and Peace left a wooden box for the communities to deposit their proposals to transition towards a true peace that respects the multiple cultures and allows the territory to heal. The Truth Commissioner, Patricia Tobón, was given a clay vase, a symbol of her commitment to provide follow-up, so that these space are not just a memory for a few people, but so that it can be the raw materials need to build a healed country.