Colombia: Commemorating the Mulatos Massacre

On 21st February 2005, paramilitaries and Colombian soldiers massacred eight people from two hamlets of the San Jose Peace Community, in Apartadó, Colombia. Despite assassinations and forced displacement since the Peace Community’s foundation in 1997, this massacre was the last straw. With no trust in the state and fears of a plan to wipe them out, they broke off relations with the Government. They have focused instead on internal strength, emphasising participation, solidarity, social justice and fairer redistribution of resources. They prioritise their own grassroots peace-building process, especially the annual commemoration of the 2005 massacre. Gwen Burnyeat accompanies the community on its annual pilgremage.
by: 
Gwen Burnyeat

Every year, campesino farmers from the eleven settlements of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, scattered across the Andes’ Abibe mountain range, trek the challenging paths to Mulatos, a hamlet where they have built a settlement called the ‘Peace Village of Luis Eduardo Guerra’

PERFORMING MEMORY

On 18th February we leave the settlement of San Josecito. On the seven-hour pilgrimage through the mountains, we sweat, get tired, and gaze over the valleys of virgin forest, interspersed with clearings where the campesinos graze cattle and farm subsistence crops. The Peace Community’s dynamic performance of their memory reflects their relationship with this territory, still haunted by a painful past. How different from the National Centre for Historical Memory which is building a museum to curate the experiences of victims of the conflict.

When we arrive, we receive rice with recently harvested dark red beans, prepared in the kitchen where Community members take turns to cook for each other. After a shower from a bucket, we fall asleep in hammocks in the library.

After a two-day general assembly – where the state of the conflict is analysed and organisational decisions taken – the commemoration begins at the chapel built where the bodies of Luis Eduardo, his partner Bellanira and their 11-year-old son Deyner were found. Father Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest, holds a mass at 7.30am, the approximate hour of their deaths.

DEFEATING FEAR

The mass begins with a recording of Luis Eduardo. He tells the story of the Peace Community’s signing of a declaration of neutrality on 23rd March 1997 in the presence of international observers, followed by military and paramilitary operations that began on 28th March and spread across the whole region, forcing all the campesino families to leave. “They burned houses, stole cattle, and killed entire families.”

The displaced families arrived in the town of San José de Apartadó. There they established organisational processes and debated what their community should be, sowing the seeds of what they are today. NGOs came and arranged workshops on human rights and international humanitarian law. As Luis Eduardo says on the recording, “We also began to defeat our fear”.

The recording finishes. A strong smell of wild coriander fills the air, and the sound of rustling grass as cows amble across the clearing. Father Giraldo explains that new generations must learn about the Community’s origins, as well as the massacre, and that those who lived through it should recall the lost.

“This is a Community that aims to satisfy everyone’s basic needs… It is a project that goes against the grain of the rest of society, which is based on values of individualism and exclusion… We must remember how valuable what we have built is, and reaffirm our commitment to constantly improve it. The chances of a real peace in Colombia are distant and tenuous. We must remember that we build our own peace, day by day.”

WHEN CHILDREN ARE VIEWED AS A THREAT

After the Eucharist, we adjourn for breakfast, then set out on the hour-long climb to La Resbalosa, where the five other victims were killed: Alfonso Bolívar, his partner Sandra, their five-year old daughter Natalia, and their eighteen-month old son, Santiago, together with a farm worker, Alejandro.

One paramilitary who participated in the massacre gave testimony: “The little girl was very sweet, and the little boy was curious. We suggested to the commanders that we should leave them in a nearby house, but they said that they were a threat, they would become guerrilleros in the future.”

The bodies were chopped into pieces and placed in two shallow graves in a nearby cacao grove. The Community found the remains two days later, covered with empty cacao husks.

The walk to La Resbalosa is cheerful. On arrival, Julio and Uberli, whose wooden house looks out across the valley towards Córdoba, have prepared a barrel of lemonade sweetened with sugar cane. Everyone drinks and rests until Father Giraldo leads us to the spot where the bodies were found, now site of a memorial and a cacao sapling.

We sing psalms, and Father Giraldo asks “What does it mean to kill children?” I look at the dozens of children sitting around us. It is chilling to confront this brutality. And yet such acts have occurred over decades of violence. Such commemorations carry great emotional importance. The Community’s collective identity is confirmed, and their historical memory is strengthened. They are left with a sense of togetherness.

MAKING SENSE OF THE PAST

The Peace Community have good reasons to remain sceptical about the deal that will be brokered in Havana, especially in the region of Urabá, where economic interests in the land combine with local criminal power structures. But peace does not just depend on the ending of the conflict between FARC and the government; all society must keep historical memory alive. With the brutality that communities like the Peace Community of San José have suffered – which evades all attempts to impose logic – how is Colombia to write and re-write its past?

These issues will be played out in individual regions for generations, regardless of the negotiations in Havana. The Peace Community’s commemoration embeds memory in physical space as well as in time, and also renews community bonds. Above all, it is their autonomous way of ascribing dignity and sense to the non-sense of their violent past. And if they can do so, having suffered so much, then surely the rest of Colombia also has a chance.

For more article from The Latin American Bureau go to www.lab.org.uk