|Four Days in Search of the Bodies of those Massacred in the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado|
(photos that accompanied print version are not available online)
The renowned photographer Jes?s Abad Colorado accompanied the members of this community. This is his story.
I can keep silent no longer. I spent four days with the Peace Community of San Jos? de Apartad?. I went to the area to photograph the search for the assassinated leaders and their family members, in the villages of the Mulatos River canyon, in the Abibe Mountains. On one side is the province of Antioquia, on the other, C?rdoba. It is a region rich in forests and waters, which for the past decade has kept seeing it?s old owners, the campesinos (peasants), again and again give birth, flee and die. Many of them have been from the Peace Community.
Thursday, February 24th
At night I received an email with the tragic news of the assassination of seven people from the Peace Community. ?We can say no more, the pain overwhelms us so deeply that we can only cry ?? The communiqu? names the Army as responsible for the deaths, and announces the departure of a commission to the village of La Resbalosa, nine hours away from San Jos?, to look for the bodies.
Since 1997, the year that I met these people in this Urab? region of Antioquia when they formed this Peace Community, I have seen their memorial monument continue to grow. It is made of stones that they bring from the river. They write on each stone the name of the person assassinated. There are now more than 150.
Friday, February 25th
I got to Urab? just after 10:30 am. I went to the township in an open sided bus, with a person from the community. We got there before noon. The heat was intense, and the few townspeople who were there were anxiously awaiting word from the international accompaniers, who had left at dawn with the campesinos and headed for La Resbalosa.
The report came in at 1:30 pm. ?The Peace Community commission had arrived before noon, before the judicial authorities. They did not think that all of the bodies would be able to be exhumed that same afternoon.? They would return the next day. I asked the two people who had waited for me to leave with me.
With a lot of worries, blessings, and some food we left at 2 pm.
The ascent up one arm of the Abibe Mountains started out fast. My fear of night falling made me push the mule faster than it could go. The steady voice of Pedro*, one of the campesinos, calmed me down. ?These animals know where we?re headed and they?re measuring their pace. If you hurry them, they won?t have energy to get up to the top of Chontalito.?
At around 4 pm Don Alberto*, a man with strong large hands, caught up to us. ?The thing is that these dead have a lot of mourners, and they were like our children,? he emphasizes. The path was a little less long and tense with his tough and sweet stories about the love they have for this land. Despite the pain and the fear, they were full of dignity and hope.
?Look at these mountains, so beautiful, so productive, and now so abandoned. My father raised us here. This is my life. I live here with my wife, my kids, and even if it?s just with yucca and cocoa beans we?re going to survive. I don?t plan to flee. We?ve been displaced before and it?s really rough. It?s been 8 or 9 years of persecution and abuses. It?s rage directed at us, even by the State. All because we don?t want to let in anyone who carries weapons, since they all just want to use us.?
The afternoon wore on and the cold fog blurred out the mountainous landscape. Around us, in the dense forest, the monkeys jumped away from us as we passed. We were near the summit of Chontalito, one of the Abibe mountain peaks. The way down was harder than I had imagined, but the fog cleared a bit and it cheered me to be able to see the horizon, and see the Mulatos River canyon. It was 6 pm and as we descended Mount Chontalito we could see our destination, the Resbalosa Mountains. These divide Antioquia from C?rdoba, at the municipality of Tierralta.
At 7:15 we heard the sound of two helicopters leaving the mountain. We understood that the exhumation had been finished. Minutes later we ran into the commission that had left at dawn. They were nearly 80 people who, on foot and horseback, were heading back from the farm of Alfonso Bol?var Tuberquia, one of the assassinated leaders of the Peace Community on whose cocoa farm the graves with the mutilated bodies were found. It was an endless line of lights and hearts broken by the pain, descending rapidly from La Resbalosa to the Mulatos River. There was silence. We heard only the sound of crickets and the panting of the horses.
At the river, by the light of the moon, the commission stopped for a moment to wait for another group. Several leaders informed us that five bodies had been found. ?There were bullet holes in the kitchen, some words written with the burnt end of a stick and blood stains on the floor and the mark of a bloody hand slipping down the wood? The bodies were in two graves, a few meters from the house and in the middle of the cocoa field. There we found Alfonso Bol?var, his wife Sandra Milena Mu?oz and their children Santiago, 20 months old, and Natalia Andrea, 6 years old. We also found the body of Alejandro P?rez, who worked helping Alfonso with the cocoa harvest. There were other workers who fled. The adults were dismembered, down to their torsos. The 6 year old girl?s arm was cut off and they cut open her stomach, as they did to the 20 month old boy. Luis Eduardo Guerra and his family were not in the graves, but a commission left before nightfall to check some sites near the river, where they had been stopped.?
Minutes later that other commission arrived with the news that they had found the other bodies. Luis Eduardo, Deiner and Beyanira. ?They?re downriver in the open air, beyond the school and next to the path that goes in to where the Mulatos health clinic used to be. We saw the little boy?s head next to the river banks, near the cadavers. We have to stay up all night and keep watch because the vultures are eating them.? We walked back along the river for nearly half an hour. No one wanted to talk. Only the sound of the water coming down from the Abibe Mountains was in our eyes and our ears.
It?s nearly 10 pm and we?re next to a small house, with wood walls and a thatched roof. It just has one room and several families.
One of the women of the community, who tells us that she was born here, tells us ?a decade ago there were 200 some families that lived here with us in Mulatos canyon. There were community stores, a school, a health clinic and all of that is in ruins now. There have been so many armed invasions and so many campesinos killed that they?ve been pulling us out of our lands. A year ago there were nearly 90 families here, but after an invasion by the army and paramilitaries there were only 16 left. We'll see how many stay after this.?
Other campesinos point to the Mulatos canyon and talk of the town of Nueva Antioquia in Turbo. ?The paramilitaries have organized a lot of their invasions from there, and they coordinate them with the army. Since the demobilization of the Bananeros Block (of paramilitaries) and the arrival of the police to the township of Nueva Antioquia they?ve set up other groups and camps further in, towards this zone right next to Mulatos, in a place called Rodoxali.?
The night is illuminated with moonlight. The group gets ready to sleep, side by side, under the sky.
Saturday, February 26th
The day starts at 5 am. The commission divides up tasks. One group heads back to San Jos? de Apartad? to prepare the burial. Another will head down to watch over the bodies and wait for the legal investigation and recovery of the bodies. They are accompanied by members of Peace Brigades International (PBI) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). A small group sets out to look for yucca and prepare food.
The group I?m in has nearly 40 people and heads out at 6 am. After walking along the riverbanks for 40 minutes the vultures let us know we?ve arrived. On the side of the Mulatos River, which runs fairly dry this time of year, is what is left of the head of Luis Eduardo?s son, Deiner Andr?s, who was 11 years old: his skull and a few vertebrae. 15 meters up ahead is the rest of they boy?s body, next to that of his father. The body of Luis Eduardo?s 17 year old partner Beyanira Areiza is also there. Their bodies are intertwined.
There?s not a lot left of them. There are no signs of bullet holes in their heads. The bodies of the boy and his dad still have their boots on. Beyanira doesn?t. She?s barefoot and her body is half on top of Deiner?s and the rest bent over Luis Eduardo?s body. Beyanira?s green sweats are pulled down to her knees. Near the boy?s skull, 5 or 6 meters away, is a machete that?s been thrown in to the weeds next to the river. 30 meters further down, in the middle of the river, among the stones, is one of Beyanira?s small black boots, and 15 meters away is the other one, almost cut in half along the seam. Very nearby is another machete.
The members of the Peace Community stop and look at the boy?s skull. Then they walk up to the bodies. There are no tears. Their eyes look and empty out. There are no words. One of the leaders and the attorney break the silence: ?No one touch anything around here. The evidence can?t be touched. It?s important that it be the prosecutors that pick them up and investigate?.
The group withdraws to the other bank. All we hear now are the sobs of Luis Eduardo?s sister, who stays by his side. They echo and ring deep in this silence. Now tears are running down many cheeks. The minutes pass, then the hours, and there are no signs of helicopters or commissions or prosecutors. The peace brigaders use their satellite phone to call and tell again and again where the site is, requesting removal of the bodies.
At 11 am breakfast is ready. The sky is clear and we?re told that the family we stayed next to last night has decided to flee and join the ranks of the displaced. Several young men use slingshots to throw rocks at the vultures that circle around and fill the treetops, and to keep away the pigs that surround us.
It?s 2:30 pm. The peace brigaders, seeing that the prosecutors aren?t arriving and not having been able to communicate with their main office, decide to head back to San Jos?. They offer to come back the next day or send a new team of peace brigaders in case the investigation is dragged out. The group from the community decides to stay and keep watching over the bodies.
At 4 pm the sound of two helicopters announces the arrival of the prosecutors. At least that?s what we all think. The group heads towards the old health clinic site where there?s enough open space for landing and waves white flags. They try to get the attention of the pilots. But the helicopters head to La Resbalosa. One lands and the other hovers in the air, then they head to El Barro, again the same helicopter lands and lets out the troops that they picked up in La Resbalosa. They do this same operation four or five times. These back and forth trips don?t take long, the mountains are right in front of each other, and the Mulatos River runs between them. On foot it is an hours walk. The campesinos wave their shirts in the air, start a fire, and shout, but the helicopters are lost again in the clouds.
At 5:15 a commission of soldiers and police arrive. They don?t come close, they ask for representatives of the Community to come speak to them alone. One of the leaders goes with the attorney. Later a police captain calls me over and introduces himself to me politely. His name is Captain Castro. He asks me who I work for and could I do a series of photographs of the bodies, for the legal investigation, in case the prosecutors don?t arrive.
When I come back to the group the campesinos tell me that a soldier who was not wearing a name badge took the machete that was near Beyanira?s boots. The soldier cleans it and sharpens it against the stones. When he sees that I?m watching him he turns his back. When the attorney and the community?s representative walk back to the group they are told about this and they head back to speak to the Captain. They ask that this be reported to army higher-ups because it is ?tampering with evidence?. When they come back to the group of campesinos there is even more anguish. ?The soldier picked up the machete, walked by us, and without any shame or pity for what we?re going through, made gestures and told us that that machete had been the throat slitter?.
The police officer says that the bodies cannot be removed until the next day, that he will spend the night nearby and make sure that the animals don?t keep destroying the bodies. The community?s representative and the attorney inform this officer and the army that the next day ?the community will form two commissions, one will come back to this same site to wait for the bodies to be removed, the other will head to the village of El Barro, because we have heard nothing from the families there, even though they live very close to here.? The army officer responds that they are in that village and that there are no families there. The community insists. At 7 pm we go back to our sleeping site.
Sunday, February 27th
Before 5 am three people take on the sacrificing of a pig. The long loud squeals of the animal wake us. Their echoes hang over the forest for several minutes. Later, like on all of these days, the silence comes flooding back.
It?s 6 am. The first commission heads out with the attorney to the site where we found the bodies of Luis Eduardo, Deiner and Beyanira. The 14 people who are heading to the village of El Barro ask me to accompany them. We head down the river. We turn in for 20 minutes and then head up. The line stops for a moment. There is a checkpoint with three uniformed men. They ask the campesinos what they are doing here. They explain. One soldier has insignias on his arm, from the 33rd Battalion Cacique Lutaime. The others have no identification. They ask me who I am and why I am with the group. I explain my documentary work and that we are searching for several families in this region that have not been heard from since the events of Monday the 21 or Tuesday the 22nd. The soldier speaks to the other two and then heads up to where there are more uniformed men. He comes down a few minutes later and lets us pass. He lets us know that a few meters ahead there?s a pool where several soldiers are bathing. We walk by and they?re washing their clothes.
Just two blocks later there are three wooden houses, with metal roofs. In the first there is a sign written with a burnt stick end. ?Out guerillas, it?s your worst nightmare telling you so ? El Cacique?; above that it says: ?The Scorpion BCG 33?. There is no one in that house. The people who live there are in the other two homes, very close to each other. Two girls are throwing corn to the chickens and a pig with four piglets. When they see the commission coming carrying the community?s flag they come out and greet us. An older man, sitting on a bench, closes his bible and smiles. He calls to two women who are in the kitchen. Behind the commission come the three uniformed men and they stand between the houses, watching us. Another man, without a shirt and wearing a hat, comes out of a room and greets us very timidly. It?s Rigo*, the campesinos say.
The youngest woman is breastfeeding a baby and the grandmother speaks in a low voice. She wants to know how long we?ve been in the area and if we?ve come for them. She thanks God that this nightmare is going to be over. ?It started on Monday when they got here and they haven?t let us leave. They have Rigo, the neighbor, detained too. They don?t even let him go to his home, which is nearby, on the other mountainside. His wife and kids are home alone there. They interrogate and threaten me, because they say I?m a nurse for the guerilla. Melazo is with them, he?s a paramilitary. It?s the third time that he?s come to my house with the army. He said that he was going to finish off everyone from the Peace Community because they were a bunch of S.O.B. guerrillas and that if he has to he?ll get the foreigners too. That we?re in a zone that?s theirs and belongs to them. He?s threatened to cut off my daughters? heads when they go to the well for water. They?ve dug several holes looking for weapons ??
One of the members of the community tells that they?ve been in the zone since Friday. First in La Resbalosa and then near Cantarrana, 30 minutes away. He says that there are still several bodies that have to be removed. They?re the bodies of Luis Eduardo, Deiner and Beyanira. The woman?s eyes fill with tears. She takes our hands in hers and speaks even more softly: ?So, it?s true that they?ve killed them? Why did they do that? I told Luis Eduardo not to go that morning to the cocoa field to pick those beans. We knew that they were doing a military operation. I did all but plead with him to head back to San Jos? ? He didn?t pay attention to me because he wasn?t afraid, besides he needed the money from the harvest to take his son in to the doctor. He left in the morning and said he?d be back, but he never came. These people came after midday on Monday (February 21st) and we haven?t but suffered since. We?ve spent all our time praying until you got here. They barely let us go out and pick a little corn. Around Wednesday they told us that they had killed some guerillas in the river, that one was with his wife and child. I said to them, could it be that you?ve killed Luis Eduardo and his son? They?re my relatives. Beyanira is his partner. They changed their tune then and said oh, those were killed by the paramilitaries?.
I walk up to one of the soldiers and share some thoughts about the pain suffered by campesinos in Colombia and I tell him that this trip has me overwhelmed with all of these events. Visibly disturbed he tells me, ?It?s always the campesinos that lose everything. Just look, this family is going to leave even their pigs?. I ask him how long he?s been in the area. ?Since Monday? he says. Here in El Barro?? I ask. ?No, we came in through Las Nieves on Saturday and we got here on Monday.?
At 10:30 the families are ready to leave their homes, to join the displaced. There is a lot of sadness, but also joy. The graffiti on the first house has been erased by the uniformed men. We go back to the site where we spent the night. We meet up with the other commission, and they greet the new families.
The sound of the helicopters leaving the Mulatos River canyon announces the end of the investigation and removal of the bodies of Luis Eduardo, Deiner and Beyanira.
After midday a long string of campesinos, with a few possessions and animals, begins the climb to the top of Mount Chontalito. We?re headed back to San Jos? de Apartad?.
At 7 pm, wiped out from the journey, we enter the township of San Jos?. Lots of people come out to meet us. ?Where are my colleagues from the press?? I ask the townspeople. There is no answer. No one has come.
The population gathers around the community hall. Lying there are the bodies of Alejandro P?rez, Alfonso Bol?var Tuberquia and Sandra Mu?oz, and their children Santiago y Natalia. The residents of the Peace Community and their council decided to wait until all of the bodies were together to do a joint burial. Before midnight the other bodies arrive in a van. They?re accompanied by the Jesuit priest Javier Giraldo and by Gloria Cuartas. She, as mayor of Apartad?, saw the birth of this community.
Monday, February 28th
It?s 7:30 am. The bishop of Apartad? appears briefly. He?s gone before 8 am.
The mass begins at 8:30 am, when campesinos from nearby villages arrive. It?s a mass that asks for truth, calls for justice and respect for the dignity of this Peace Community.
As we walk to the burial site I look at the eyes of the teenagers, men and women who were on the search for their leader and their families, at those newly orphaned and at the ever-present widows. It?s too much pain. The people who I saw courageously walking over mountains and through valleys are now bowed down in this graveyard in San Jos? de Apartad?.
* Names changed.
Jes?s Abad Colorado
Guest column for EL TIEMPO
March 16th, 2005
Postscript: The Risk of Premature Accusations
The tragedy of San Jos? de Apartad? shows that even though President ?lvaro Uribe insists on denying the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia, a good part of the people of this country live, or rather try to survive, under the crossfire between guerilla groups, paramilitaries and the state security forces.
The situation is, and has been for more than 20 years, dramatic for many campesinos who are sometimes named as guerilla accomplices and other times as collaborators with the army and the paramilitaries.
This position has made Colombian campesinos the most easy and vulnerable target of the armed actors in the conflict. The massacres, the selective assassinations, the disappearances and the forced displacement show this.
It is beyond understanding then, that in this context, the president would declare, as he did on March 20th, that several leaders of this peace community had been named by some residents as FARC collaborators, without any competent authorities having made such a pronouncement.
This statement, rather than hastening the investigations in to the truth of this case, runs the risk of being interpreted as a justification for what happened in Urab?.
The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Colombia clearly stated in their communiqu? of March 22nd: ?Until a legal decision declares specific persons responsible for these crimes, it is advisable to not make any statements which could put at risk the lives or physical safety of the members of the peace community, or which could lead to their forced displacement.?
What is more, the Constitutional Court had already told president Uribe this is a decision issued in a constitutional protection case last January: ?Should abstain from issuing any statement which injures or puts at risk fundamental rights? and what?s more ?these are subjects with special constitutional protections given to human rights defenders, demobilized combatants, those displaced by violence and member of peace communities (?)?.
Justice is what is sorely lacking in Colombia. And this lack has ripened the field, so that many are now taking justice in to their own hands. This is why it is essential that those to whom we authorize the legitimate use of force and who represent the state of law be the first to respect legal procedures and not jump ahead of investigations with pronouncements that could put at risk the lives of innocent civilians.
Carlos Fernando Gal?n
733 Euclid Street NW
Washington, DC 20001