12 Años de Soledad?

On March 23, 1997, the peace community of San José de Apartadó was founded in the northwestern Colombian department of Antioquia. A response to several decades of regional armed conflict, repeated displacement of the population, and—finally—two massacres carried out in 1996 and 1997 by Colombian paramilitaries, the peace community formally renounced violence as  a means of resolving disputes and declared its neutrality in the midst of war. Unaware of the community’s impending 12-year anniversary, I arrived to its core village of San Josesito on March 20, 2009, following a multiday hitchhiking journey with my friends Amelia and Amanda.

Having failed to procure a roadmap of Colombia, we had set out from Bogotá armed with a few pertinent facts gleaned from Forrest Hylton’s book Evil Hour in Colombia, such as that San José was located in the region of Urabá near the Panamanian border; additional details were accumulated along the way:TRUCK DRIVER WHO PICKED US UP NEAR MEDELL?N AFTER WE CONVINCED HIM THAT IT WAS POSSIBLE TO FIT 3 EXTRA PASSENGERS AND 10 EXTRA PIECES OF LUGGAGE INTO THE CAB OF HIS VEHICLE (statement accompanied by ominous sidelong glances): San José boom boom. FARC boom boom.

These sentiments were reiterated for the duration of our mountainous 13-hour ride to the city of Apartadó, located approximately half an hour from the peace community. Upon reaching the city, the truck driver attempted to hand us off to the local police force, who he claimed would escort us the rest of the way to our destination as a precautionary measure against “FARC boom boom.” Given estimates that the FARC had carried out merely 24 of the 184 extrajudicial killings that had taken place in the peace community since its founding, we opted for the jeep service to San Josesito as a more suitable remedy to the situation. Suitable remedies devised by Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez meanwhile consisted of:

the installation of a police station in the village of San José following the massacre and dismemberment of 8 citizens of the peace community by the Colombian army in conjunction with the paramilitaries. Victims of the February 21, 2005 massacre had included 3 children and Luis Eduardo Guerra Guerra, who despite his two last names was a prominent leader of the community.

fumigation of Colombian campesinos in order to combat cocaine addiction in the United States and Europe.

As a result of the inauguration of the San José police station, which violated the peace community’s refusal to live among armed actors, the majority of the village’s inhabitants voluntarily displaced themselves a kilometer down the road to a farm called La Holandita, where they erected the new village of San Josesito. After half an hour of skidding through mud in a jeep, Amelia, Amanda, and I were deposited at the entrance to San Josesito, where the jeep’s driver assured us that road conditions would soon improve in accordance with international exploitation of local coal mines.

A sign by the gate outlined the founding principles of the peace community, such as that its members would not tolerate injusticia or impunidad, that they would not provide information to any armed faction, and that they would participate in trabajos comunitarios. We slid through the gate in the mud and were promptly beckoned into the first residence on the right by a disabled teenage girl named Kely seated on the patio. Kely spent several minutes creating songs out of our respective names before we were delivered into the hands of Jesús Emilio, a member of the community’s Consejo Interno.

A man of slight stature, Jesús Emilio confirmed upcoming improvements in road conditions, and added wood, water, oil, uranium, and gold to the list of regionally exploitable materials. As an afterthought he added portions of the campesino population as well, who had fallen prey to the notion that road improvement was for their own benefit. After briefly debating what to do with Amelia, Amanda, and me—as we did not belong to an NGO and had not sent a letter announcing our arrival—Jesús Emilio led us down a path through a scattering of pigs and chickens to a wooden house with a multicolored flag bearing the Italian word for peace. Inside the house were two Italians belonging to a project called Operazione Colomba, which in Spanish had been altered to Palomas de Paz given inauspicious local associations with the word operation.

Along with a handful of other international groups that served as acompañantes to the peace community’s various hamlets, the Italians’ purpose in San José was to deter harassment by the army, the paramilitaries, and the guerrillas. To the untrained eye, deterrence strategies appeared to consist of cooking pasta and swinging in hammocks in the common area of the international house, as the acompañantes were prohibited from engaging in any sort of politically motivated activity such as helping the villagers build health care facilities. Deterrence took on new forms when the Italians announced they would be leaving town that afternoon for several days and that the hammocks would be ceded to Amelia, Amanda, and me.

One of the Italians warned us that the international pantry was not stocked with popcorn and peanut butter, which she presumed to be our primary sources of sustenance based on previous shared quarters with American peace activists in Hebron. Her stint in Colombia had thus far acquainted her with additional errors of the American diet, such as funding of paramilitary activity by banana companies, and with the view that it was much easier to determine who the enemy was in Palestine.

Lack of enemy clarity in Colombia had recently been illustrated in a conversation with a Palestinian clothing store proprietor named Fawaz in Bogotá, who had:

invited Amelia and me into his office for coffee and an unending series of photos on the computer of his house in Ramallah from different angles and in varying meteorological conditions.

announced that the internal Colombian diaspora was entirely the fault of the FARC, despite Israeli training of Colombian paramilitaries.

reasoned that at least Colombian desplazados were accepted as being Colombian and not harnessed with citizenship of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Jesús Emilio proposed a correlation between enemy clarity and levels of US military aid, and suggested that Israeli training had included not only techniques for inserting sharp objects under fingernails but also concepts such as the utility of ubiquitous application of the term “terrorist.” Recalling the high incidence of road networks in Israel that were not intended for use by the native population, Jesús Emilio departed for a meeting in Apartadó.

Prior to departing themselves, the Italians showed us around the village, which included a few schoolrooms decorated with slogans like “Los niños no queremos ser víctimas,” a library, a billiard hall, a dining facility, a kiosco for assemblies and dances, a monument consisting of rocks painted with the names of the community’s martyrs, and a variety of trenches crisscrossing the property into which Amanda periodically fell. Area crops included cacao, corn, and miniature bananas that were shipped to the US in plastic bags marked “Baby.”

The first person to interrupt our test of the hammocks that evening was Jesús Emilio’s 80-year-old mother, who provided us with a detailed account of her personal desplazamiento, most of which was inaudible due to the presence of a loudspeaker blaring music from a nearby tree and the arrival of a herd of children who displaced us from our hammocks by popping balloons. We were able to gather from hand gestures, however, that Jesús Emilio’s mother had previously lived at a higher altitude.

Our next visitor was María Brígida, a woman with two grey braids who was one of the founders of the peace community and whose 15-year-old daughter Eliseña had perished in a massacre by the Colombian army in December of 2005. Seated in a plastic chair intently sewing green beads onto a cellular phone carrying case, María Brígida rejected the notion of financial compensation for the loss of her daughter on the grounds that Eliseña had not been an arepa (typical Colombian bread product) and stipulated that the only suitable remedy for such a situation was la memoria, without which history was destined to repeat itself. This philosophy was promptly validated when a 3-year-old boy flew out of the hammock several consecutive times before María Brígida put a stop to the cycle by untying one end; as for other García Márquez-inspired themes aside from repetition of history and massacres on banana farms, it rained until the morning of the anniversary.

Amelia, Amanda, and I made an effort to emerge in the downpour in order to visit such sites as the fábrica de cacao, a community initiative across the street from the entrance to San Josesito, where we consumed unprocessed remnants of cacao nuts. The member of San José’s Consejo Interno who had been tasked with escorting us to the fábrica assured us that he had plenty of experience with pillagers of crops and livestock, and admitted that the FARC showed a greater tendency toward reimbursement for devoured or destroyed items than did other armed formations.

On the morning of Monday, March 23, the loudspeaker in the tree alternately blared music and a request for community members to gather in the kiosco. About 100 people eventually complied with the request, including Jesús Emilio, who was dressed in a green Ronaldinho soccer jersey and was of the opinion that more than 100 people would have complied had citizens in the remote corners of the peace community not had to stay home to protect their houses from the army. A white sheet hanging in the front of the room had been decorated with pictures of flowers and a list of things the peace community had peacefully resisted in the past 12 years, such as masacres, desplazamientos forzados, bloqueos económicos, and violación de mujeres.

The meeting in the kiosco consisted of a few speeches by community leaders, two minutes of silence in commemoration the community’s martyrs, and a discussion of whether or not a bathroom feature should be incorporated into one of San Josesito’s new facilities. In his speech, Jesús Emilio lamented the fact that certain victims of the estado paramilitar were now aiding in its legitimization, by accepting:

handouts from the government.

the extradition of Colombian war criminals to the United States , where they were downgraded to narcotraffickers.

(Other contemporary forms of legitimization included Uribe’s Ley de Justicia y Paz of 2005, which disguised exoneration of the paramilitary model as demobilization and national reconciliation.)
Following the debate over the bathroom, it was announced that we would all be engaging in a peaceful march up the road to San José de Apartadó, former core of the peace community, where we would visit the cemetery in which the 8 victims of the February 21 massacre were interred. Looking up from her work on the green beaded cellular phone case, María Brígida affirmed that “la memoria es la esencia de un pueblo,” and that it could not be displaced by the erection of a subestación de la policía overlooking the San José cemetery. She expressed remorse, however, that the peace community’s anniversary was now celebrated only once a year, whereas during the year of its founding it had been celebrated repeatedly.

We set off from San Josesito on foot, accompanied by a man with a guitar on the back of a motorcycle. Nearing the entrance to San José we came across a billboard encouraging further legitimization of Jesús Emilio´s estado paramilitar, by advertising the preparation of 900 hectares of land for cacao cultivation by 300 displaced families who were choosing to reverse their desplazamiento. Other notable landmarks aside from the billboard and the police station on the hill included an extensive patch of mud, in which my borrowed pair of mud boots and I became stuck while village women charged around me in heeled sandals.

We reached the cemetery and formed a circle around the grave of the February 21 victims, monitored from above by a variety of men in uniform, one of whom snapped a photograph of the group exerting its right to la memoria. While María Brígida brought Luis Eduardo Guerra—the assassinated community leader—up to date on the goings-on in the community, a young man named Arley trained his video camera on the picture taker above.

Arley was in his early twenties with braces and held a range of functions in the peace community, such as manager of the loudspeaker in the tree and the community’s video archives. Once it was established that the latest installment of video footage would consist of men in uniform turning their backs to Arley’s camera and one of them lowering his pants, we proceeded from the cemetery to the center of town, where Arley confronted a young helmeted soldier regarding the events of the past 10 minutes. The issue appeared to be not so much the lowering of pants as the military´s version of la memoria, which Arley defined as loading digital storage cards with photographic target suggestions and passing them along to paramilitaries. The confrontation went as follows:

Helmeted soldier denies existence of alleged photo of group.

Arley demands that camera in question be produced.

International acompañantes stand diligently by.

Helmeted soldier produces camera but claims that camera batteries have been demobilized.

Arley produces his own batteries and the photo is erased.

When Amelia, Amanda, and I spoke with Arley the following day in his makeshift media center in San Josesito, he explained that the army suffered no dearth of creativity when it came to inventing excuses, and that they continued to claim that the February 21 massacre had been perpetrated by the FARC despite individual military and paramilitary confessions to the contrary. According to Arley, the only reason this particular massacre was being investigated in the first place—when some 750 other accusations of human rights violations levied against the army by the peace community over the past 12 years were not—was that the US Congress had in a rare judicious moment suspended a portion of its military aid to Colombia in the wake of the massacre. Other judicious moments on the part of the American government had included threats to withhold loan guarantees but not direct aid from Israel following rampant construction of settlements on occupied Palestinian land; Colombian judiciousness meanwhile continued with the extradition to the US of a top paramilitary commander involved in the February 21 massacre before he had time to adequately describe the crime.

Arley regretted that major Colombian news outlets had been eager to entertain the idea that Luis Eduardo Guerra had been a member of the FARC and had been murdered by the guerrilla organization while trying to desert. He maintained, however, that the peace community’s isolation by the media did not indicate that it had been condemned to 12 years of solitude, and drew our attention to an anniversary posting to that effect on the community’s website. The posting asserted that the past dozen years had instead been “doce años de memoria, de vida, de resistencia civil y dignidad.”

Solitude appeared as a more realistic prospect that night when the power went out in San Josesito and the loudspeaker in the tree was replaced by the sounds of explosions in the hills. We sought out María Brígida to verify that la memoria would override the possibility of being wiped out by the wind and deemed undeserving of a second opportunity on earth; María Brígida smiled and continued sewing green beads onto the cellular phone case, a response which satisfied us until Arley pointed out that it was more likely to be wiped out by helicopter gunship.

BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ is currently completing a book entitled Coffee with Hezbollah, which chronicles the 2-month hitchhiking journey through Lebanon that she and Amelia Opaliska conducted in the aftermath of the July 2006 war. She can be reached at belengarciabernal@gmail.com

Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso, and Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon.