On 8th July 2021, PBI accompanied the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó in the commemoration of the massacre of La Unión. As every year, the Community honoured the memory of its victims, tended to the memorial and reaffirmed its commitment to its resistance in the territory. The ceremony took place despite acts of intimidation perpetrated by a group of people drinking liquor and playing loud music. In the face of this attempt to silence them and in the midst of anguish and pain, the members of the community made memories in order to continue building a dignified present and the peace they deserve.
21 years ago, PBI also accompanied the families of the victims in the village of La Union. The day before, on July 8th, 2000, members of the Peace Community, Rigoberto Guzman, Elodino Rivera, Diofanor Correa, Humberto Sepulveda, Jaime Guzman and Pedro Zapata were assassinated in the village by paramilitaries. This massacre took place three years after the creation of the Peace Community and was aimed at destroying an important organisational site for the process. According to Father Javier Giraldo, who has accompanied the community from its beginnings, this massacre was not the product of confrontations in the midst of the armed conflict, nor was it a war crime. This massacre was planned and carried out with a single and indisputable objective: to wipe out the Peace Community.1
According to the testimonies narrated by Father Javier, around 20 hooded men entered the village, entering first through the Missionary Sisters to cut the telephone. At that moment, a helicopter from the XVII Brigade flew over the village. Some of the villagers managed to flee, while others remained in the village. The hooded men summoned all the villagers, asking them for the whereabouts of the leaders, while separating the women and children from the men. They then began to shoot at the men, sparing the life of only one of them on the grounds that he was very young. They threatened the community, giving them 20 days to leave the area. On leaving the hamlet, they set fire to the community house where there was a public telephone. As a result of this event, 63 families from the hamlet of La Unión and inhabitants of Arenas Altas were forcibly displaced.
Father Javier Giraldo adds: “After the massacre in La Unión, some government officials came with an energetic attitude, assuring us that they were going to take action immediately. They were going to create a government commission, but this promise never materialised. As a result, people in the Community quickly lost faith”.2
The sole survivor of the massacre remembers that day as if it were yesterday. It seems as if time has stood still, the dismay at the lack of response and the hopelessness is still palpable. Injustice and impunity were present not only on 8th July 2000, but also in 2021 when the ceremony was not respected and was even mocked by the people on the pavement.
Today, more than twenty years after its creation, violence against the Peace Community has not diminished. In 2018, 320 people were murdered, countless threats, torture, forced displacement, sexual outrages, looting and armed robbery perpetrated were registered by all the armed actors present in the area for decades: guerrillas, paramilitaries and the National Army. Because of these acts of violence against them, the community no longer believes in the state’s will to protect them.3
Commemoration is a way of moving forward despite the threats that continue against them. The members of the Peace Community focus their energies on the memory of their martyrs, remembering with gratitude the gift of life and presence of their assassinated leaders as well as the people who have accompanied them and who are no longer with them, such as Eduar Lanchero.
They speak of “energising memory”. That same strength we feel in remembering people like Liza Smith, who left us in February this year. She was hugely committed to peace and social justice and spent many years with PBI and other organisations, accompanying communities in resistance, human rights defenders. In her writing “The practice of no success”, published in 2016, Liza questions the trap of hope and the difficulties of continuing to struggle when longed-for changes fade as we move forward. For her, one response is to step out of the binary of hope and hopelessness and seek that broad territory of moral integrity. One could also refer to the dignity of the present, a space of freedom where we can agitate for dignified everyday action.4
The Peace Community of San José de Apartado is the materialisation of this reflection because it teaches us the value of shared time, the joy of resistance in its hymn, the genuineness of a conversation and the dedication and solidarity within its fabric. It is an example of the power of social bonds, of community. In the Community the humane struggle for life that reaffirms itself in a dignified present is embodied. PBI will stand by the Community in this dignified struggle until they have security guarantees and the life they long for and deserve.