|Q&A: Colombia 'peace communities' say enough is enough|
LONDON (AlertNet) - After four decades of conflict that has forced up to 3 million Colombians from their homes, some villagers have decided to take a stand and try to break the cycle of violence and displacement. So-called peace communities have sprung up across the country, declaring themselves neutral and banning arms from their borders.
In rural areas caught up in the crossfire between leftist rebels, drug traffickers and far-right paramilitary militias, it?s a courageous strategy ? and one that has drawn some deadly attacks.
One of the earliest and most famous of these groups is the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado. It was set up by a village of a thousand people in the mountainous region near the Panama border. The community is made up of peasant farmers growing corn, cocoa beans and bananas. The region is an area of strategic importance and strong guerrilla and paramilitary presence.
Andrea Ingham, an analyst with the British-based NGO Peace Brigade International Colombia project, has visited the community regularly to monitor the human rights situation there. She spoke to AlertNet about life in the shadow of violence.
ALERTNET: Why was the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado set up?
ANDREA INGHAM: Almost 3 million Colombians have been forced to flee fighting in their rural communities, and many of them are now living in awful conditions in the cities. The leaders of San Jose did not want this to happen to their community so they decided to take a strong stand against the fighting.
In 1997 after several villagers had been killed by different armed actors, they declared themselves to be neutral and publicly stated that they would not collaborate with any armed actor ? legal or illegal.
They put up a placard at the entrance to the village, clearly stating their position. If anyone entered the village armed, they would be asked to leave.
What difficulties has the community encountered?
There are constant attacks on the community. Their leaders are harassed and threatened, and since they adopted their neutral stance, over 100 people have been killed. The community says that paramilitaries carried out most of the attacks, but a few were killed by guerrillas.
One of the worst incidents took place in February 2005 when two of their leaders and their families were tortured and killed, including children aged two and six. One of the leaders killed was Luis Eduardo Guerra, who had represented the community across Europe, North America, and in meetings in the vice-president?s office, which oversees human rights.
The Colombian press covered this incident for almost two months.
What happened then? Was there any reaction to the media coverage?
President Alvaro Uribe visited the region and decided to set up a police station in the village. This concerned the community even more because they thought it would make them a target for the guerrillas.
So what did the community do?
They built a wooden town 15 minutes away from San Jose and moved there. The original village is now a ghost town, with a police station in it. In June the police station was attacked by guerrillas, confirming the community?s fears.
But the community feels more vulnerable now. Wood does not give them good protection from stray bullets.
What other problems have they encountered?
Paramilitaries have set up roadblocks outside the village to try to isolate the community. They have killed bus drivers and confiscated food to try and frighten people.
So how have they found the strength to continue in the face of such opposition?
They are trying to maintain their strong community, and keep their life on the land. They want to make sure their children have as happy a childhood as possible, despite the conflict. No matter how many setbacks they face, they carry on and on. They believe in their principles and they really believe in what they?re doing and that gives them the strength.
There has been massive displacement in their region. But they have managed to stay.
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