Operations Genesis and Cacarica: In the face of terror, a resistance story
The Bajo Atrato region, in northeastern Colombian, has been particularly hard hit by violence and the armed conflict. According to the Victims Unit, the registry for this area includes close to 429,820 victims of forced displacement, dispossession, selective murders, and other victimizing acts. One of the cruelest events that marked forever the history of the Atrato River’s Afro-Colombian communities occurred in the Cacarica river basin. Between the 24 and 27 of February 1997, Operation Genesis was executed. It was an offensive led by General Rito Alejo del Río, then commander of the Army’s 17th Brigade, in coordination with the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (Elmer Cárdenas Bloc) paramilitary group, and under the pretext of taking back control from the FARC-EP guerrillas. In parallel and through joint operations with Military Troops, the paramilitary group called the Peasant Self-defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), initiated Operation Cacarica, crossing the Atrato River until they invaded the Salaquí, Truandó, and Perancho river basins.
The people of Buenaventura have been experiencing an escalation of the conflict since 2020. Today, all eyes are on the port city, because since last December 30, the lives of 170,500 people are at risk due to clashes between “Los Shotas” and “Los Espartanos”, two factions of “La Local”, a group inherited from paramilitarism. So far in 2021, according to the Pacific Regional Ombudsman’s Office, due to more than 38 confrontations that have taken place in the urban area of Buenaventura in January, 907 families – around 2186 people – have had to be forcibly displaced from their neighborhoods and 22 people have been killed, mostly young people between 16 and 35 years old who have refused to be recruited by these groups.
In La Concepción the children are made from different stuff, as the saying goes. They run without shoes, jump into the river which is full of life and climb the trees to find small green guavas which they chew, risking their teeth. Being with them is like instantly reconnecting with something that we have perhaps lost, and whose value is truly incalculable. It might seem like we are painting a caricature here, with that romanticism that has been all too often abused when describing community life. Nevertheless, as we stand here watching these cartwheels and children’s’ games in one of the only rainforests in the world, we cannot help but notice for the first time the beauty and rarity of this life which grows, sacred, in the ancestral lands of the river Naya; and we appreciate the deep courage of those who have been persecuted, stigmatised, disappeared or killed for defending this place. Their sons and daughters transmit a peaceful lack of worry that we scarcely recognise, but which the whole community continues to defend.
It is difficult to imagine that in this same place and during this same peace, just a few days earlier, violence reared its head. The attacks against the inhabitants of the Naya have never stopped and have meant that the water has not been able to wash away the community’s wounds. Here, in this same place where our gaze is lost in such beauty, other eyes have scanned this rich landscape, and have only seen goods that can be traded, or a strategic passing place. Who knows how many such eyes are dreaming right now about taking over this land, stealing the life and tranquillity from the river and the community.
Cradled by the murmuring water, it is almost impossible to think that since April, four people from the Naya Community Council have been violently disappeared, including one who was killed with a weapon belonging to the State. The perpetrators were hoping that the attack would sow terror in the people living along the Naya River. However, thanks to the perseverance of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz – CIJP) many more people within Colombia and internationally have heard about what happened here and have thwarted the intentions of the confessed murderers, giving the community one more reason to resist and defend their human rights.
PBI has raised awareness on these incidents and we have been able to stay close to the community accompanying the CIJP as part of our mandate to protect the working space of Colombian human rights defenders. Throughout this time, we have had the privilege of getting to know the defenders who run AINIThis group has been a key figure in their community in recent months, managing to prevent the attacks and disappearance of the four Naya leaders from destroying a social fabric as rich as the one that exists among the river’s inhabitants. We were also fortunate to meet many other social leaders from the communities, whose determination and commitment to their community never ceased to amaze us.
There have, however, been other voices who have accused the victims and community leaders of being criminals. For example, a video was broadcast by those responsible for the disappearances in which they confirmed that the community members had been executed. The inhabitants of the river basins are clear when they say that the disappeared and their families are victims. Several leaders from AINI told us that these attacks affect the whole community and are a result of the persecution they have faced because of their work defending the whole community’s rights.
The Naya river is immersed in the dynamics of the conflict in the pacific region, and is living through a worsening in this regional violence, which for social leaders and human rights defenders is reaching alarming levels according to organisations such as ‘Somos Defensores’, Indepaz and OHCHR. In their reports, these organisations describe an increase in killings and threats against human rights defenders and community leaders, especially those at the forefront of the implementation of the peace agreements. This is especially the case for work related to the substitution of illegal crops and land restitution, and unfortunately also affects environmental rights defenders.
In our work as international accompaniers and observers, we have found, as in other parts of the country, a courageous population, determined to demand the fulfilment of their rights, and who will not be silenced by violence. In a number of communities in the Naya region we have witnessed a collective human strength which has not given in when faced with the challenges and demands of the conflict. In response to threats ordering them to stay silent, the Nayan people have raised a white canvas sign that challenges all comers by clearly stating that this is a “place of refuge”, a “humanitarian territory” and is “exclusive to the civilian population”.
This action aims to counteract and prevent situations like the one that took place on 2 May, when heavily-armed men invaded the Juan Santos community. As a result, some 50 people were forcibly displaced to other neighbouring communities in search of refuge. Stories like this are repeated up and down the river, echoing the route of the armed actors who have historically controlled these waters under different guises: guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug-traffickers, up and down, up and down the river…
On our most recent visit to the Naya communities, the CIJP stop in each community to see how the inhabitants are and to let them know that a delegation from the Ombudsman’s Office is going to analyse and record their situations of confinement and displacement. During one of these stops, one man tells us that he had never seen a state official before reaching La Concepción, the last community in the Bajo Naya area, about four or five hours by boat from Buenaventura. In the middle of this jungle geography, the risks of attempting to take refuge inside homes can be as dangerous as being caught up in the armed confrontations between the various illegal actors, or between these actors and the security forces. “Here you live from day to day”, the man explains. “If we do not go out to work for just one day, we do not have what we need to live. But we are afraid of the armed men moving through the territory”. Never before has the famous phrase of being ‘between a rock and a hard place’ made so much sense to us: the choice is either dying of hunger, or being caught in the middle of armed confrontations.
Our last stop is in La Concepción. When we arrive there, we hear Afro-Nayan songs of resistance and peace, dancing out from the church where the community is meeting with State officials.
In the evening, Enrique Chimonja (Kike) from the CIJP meets with the community. The rain, which beats a deafening downpour onto the tin roof, does not stop the community from attending. Kike explains what humanitarian refuge areas are and how to make use of them. These ideas are newer to us than to the community. In April 2008, after army operations in the lower Naya region, the Community Council decided to declare 13 villages as places of refuge, a declaration supported under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The objective of these areas is to prohibit the presence of armed actors with the aim of preventing the population from becoming the victim of armed confrontations and/or from being declared as targets by the armed forces. Today, unfortunately, we are witnessing the reactivation of this legal tool for survival that many had wanted to leave behind after the demobilisation of the FARC-EP. Regrettably, peace has still not arrived in these lands, and they have faced new cases of enforced disappearances and armed confrontations, like a bad memory that they are not allowed to leave behind or forget.
“Hanging a white flag shows that this village is a place where civilians live, and where armed actors cannot enter”, explains Chimonja, who was named defender of the year for 2017 by Diakonía Sweden. Meanwhile, we continue to wonder how to combine these two contradictory images that we will take away with us from the Naya: the image of a peaceful place where we marvelled at sacred nature and humanity; and the image of a place where humanity has to be fought for and cannot be taken as a given.
There are many more rivers like the Naya in Colombia. Places where violence is still present, but where we continue to hear voices of resistance; places where communities, in the legitimate exercise of their rights, defend their lands, which is to defend life and peace. They are not only struggling against weapons, but also against people who stigmatise them for their commendable efforts. In 2016 a peace agreement was signed in Colombia, but in 2018 there are still many peace processes, and infinite peace buildings in different regions, which, despite persecution and murder, continue, unstoppable, like the river.
 Extract from IACHR precautionary measures: “On January 2, 2002 the [Inter-American] Commission granted precautionary measures on behalf of afro-Colombian communities in 49 hamlets in the Naya river basin in Buenaventura.The available information indicates that since the end of November 2001 there have been approximately 300 paramilitary members in northern Cauca and the southern part of Valle del Cauca, in the municipalities of Timba, Suárez, and Buenos Aires, who have threatened the Naya and Yurumanguí river indigenous, afro-Colombian, and campesino communities. The petitioners indicated that since December and January 2001, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) had been present in the upper Naya up to Carmen and Yurumanguí threatening the inhabitants to make them leave the area. On December 27, 2001 the threats were repeated.” Published in http://www.cidh.org/medidas/2002.eng.htm; Verdad Abierta: Mujeres víctimas de la masacre del Naya, 15 November 2013
“Vamos a sacar al [Naya] delante.Vamos a sacar al [Naya] adelante. Le canto a mi tierra con amor porque la llevo en mi corazón. Sabroso me siento de estar aquí porque es la tierra donde nací.
Padeces en el olvido, desde el momento de tu creación; representa la pobreza, la pena y marginación
Has vivido marginado, ahogado en la ilusión, sabiendo pueblo que eres muy digno de admiración.
Tus hijos son tan humildes, humilde tu generación, dotados de inteligencia, sin libertad de expresión.
Tienes tierra muy fecunda, mujeres bellas y es más posee riqueza inmensa, en oro, platino y mar.
Toda tu naturaleza es fuente de producción, entonces porque no sales de tanta marginación
Adelante despertemos, compañeros del futuro, salgamos del conformismo nos espera lo más duro”