martes, octubre 08, 2013

A rough hand. Uruguayan photographer in conflictive Colombian lands.

By Agustín Fernández (text and pictures).

Chronicle published in the June issue of SeisGrados Magazine.

Returning to Colombia three years later, to the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, to continue telling a story of the Colombian conflict from the victims’ perspective. Victims that propose a way out and have organized themselves to live in peace, even if their own lives are the price to pay. Farmers that sow, so the next generation will be able to harvest.

The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó
A recent report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) places Colombia as the country with the largest internally displaced population worldwide: between 4.9 and 5.5 million people (230.000 of them in 2012) have been compelled to abandon their homes due to violence, most of them being farmers and natives forced to leave their lands. The solution many communities have found to remain in their territories is to adhere to the principle of distinction in International Humanitarian Law, creating humanitarian zones, and claiming for every side to acknowledge their condition as civil population, not involved in the armed conflict. An example of this is the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, formed by over 1.200 farmers that have been trying to survive resisting the conflict for over 16 years now, in one of the most violent zones in Colombia: Urabá Antioquia. Since its foundation, the Community has undergone economical blocks, forced displacements, threats, violations and over 190 homicides committed by the army, the paramilitary and the guerrilla.

Seven dominoes of each number, of number 3, four have already been played and I have two, so if anyone plays the remaining one I’ll have everyone passing, even my partner, but well, I’ll do it for the team’s sake”, I thought, in an attempt of creating my strategy to win this domino hand. I never thought such simple rules would make for such a complicated game, but there I was indeed, attempting to anticipate the next move, in order to be the first one left without tiles. Tinto (black coffee) and dominoes night in San Josesito. Alcohol does not exist in the Peace Community, as the internal regulations dictate its prohibition within its territories (this is also the case with cultivating coca, carrying weapons or collaborating with any of the armed sides). My game partner was Jesús Emilio, one of the main leaders in the Community, and its legal representative up until the beginning of the year. White tank top, wide hat, thin moustache and brown eyes that concentrated not only in the dominoes played by everyone else, but also in each player’s reaction, trying to get a lead from them as well. In the three years I have known him, Jesús Emilio has escaped two murder attempts. The last one was in February 2012, when two paramilitary members shot at him from a motorbike in the middle of the market plaza in Apartadó, a nearby town. Jesús Emilio managed to escape unharmed. “God wants me around for a bit longer”, he said to me more than once.

The opposite team was formed by Mr. Aníbal, a 74 year old farmer and member of the Peace Community since its foundation in 1997; and Cecile, a 25 year old French volunteer for the NGO Peace Brigades International. Cecile’s presence, along with a German volunteer that chose reading over domino, was the result of a request made by the Community to the NGO, so that they would join a work group that would leave San Josesito the following day, headed to Arenas Altas. The incursions made by the paramilitary in Arenas Altas had displaced almost every inhabitant towards other towns within the Community, so the objective of the work group was to clean the paths of access, harvest the beans, trim the cacao trees and prepare the zone, to ensure the residents (who own those lands) would gradually be able to return. It was a risky trip, more so considering Jesús Emilio’s presence among the participants, which is why the collaboration of the Peace Brigades International was necessary. The task this NGO conducts is basically one of international observation, “being present”, testifying. Before accompanying Human Rights defenders, farmers or natives being chased, members of Brigades notify embassies, police and the army about the zones they will be visiting. In words of the farmers themselves, “when you join the guys from Brigadas, the paramilitary are nowhere to be seen, but when you go alone...”.

Even though it was time for bed, dominoes was still on. Time for Jesús Emilio to make his move, who watching the dominoes played says to me: “Should I wrap this up? Should I wrap this up and we win?” Before I was able to reply, he did it for himself: “I will wrap this up so we win, Cecile has the double 5, so we will collect a lot of points...”. He placed the 4-2 dominoe, which was the last 2, so 2 was on both ends. It was impossible to carry on, the game was over. Jesús Emilio was the player with less points, he was left with the 3-1; Cecile was left with the double 5 and the 4-1. “How come you knew I had the double 5?” Cecile asked Jesús Emilio, then she added: “Did you see my dominoes?”. Jesús Emilio smiled enigmatically and taking his index finger to his temple replied: “It’s the reiki, the reiki, that’s why I’m the dominoes master”. The game was over, and off we were to bed, knowing that we faced a three-hour walk to Arenas Altas the following day.

The idea was to leave in the morning, but getting the mules ready took longer than expected, so we ended up departing after lunch. The travelling group was formed by Jesús Emilio, Orlando, Alberto, William, Orfidia a.k.a. “La Gorda”, the two Brigades volunteers and me. Once we reached Arenas Altas, John Freddy a.k.a. “Bananito”, coordinator of that zone, and some youngsters that were travelling the following day would join us.

Mud, stones, mud, stones, mud, mud and more mud, that would be the accurate description of the path we took from San Josesito to Arenas Altas. To that we should add a couple of narrow passes and the fact that the whole walk was upwards. Two hours into our journey and I could already count my pulse without using my fingers. A line from a song by Mateo and Cabrera was repeating in my head “Hearts that explode from pumping so hard”. Lucky for us, we reached a glade called Pela Huevos, where we got to rest for a few minutes. All it took to understand the name (Spanish for “Egg Peeler”) was a look at the floor, covered in eggshells. Residents from the area usually stop at the glade for resting, and hard boiled eggs are easy to carry around. It is also a spot the paramilitary tends to choose for vigilance. Fortunately, or perhaps due to the presence of Brigades, we did not come across a single paramilitary member during our three-hour walk.

We finally reached Arenas Altas, a valley amidst mountains, with no more than ten houses and a small school. We settled in an abandoned house located in one of the higher parts. The Brigades volunteers hanged their flags on the front right away, and hoisted the flag of the organization on a long cane, so it would be seen from far away. The house had soil floors and two rooms, I ended up sleeping in a hammock in the “living room-kitchen” with Cecile and Mauritz, the German. The rest of the group would sleep in the room or the eaves.

Orfidia lived in Arenas Altas until last year, when she decided to moved to San Josesito threatened by the paramilitary and the possibility of them recruiting Joaquín, her teenage son. From the eave of the house we shared, she kept me up to date with the reality of the town. “There used to be 15 families here, some others lived farther away; nowadays, the only one living here is Mr. Filimón, he lives in that house down there.”

Mr. Filimón’s house was quite similar to “ours”. Wooden walls, earthen floors, tin ceiling. I found him having lunch, sitting in the kitchen behind a hammock, guarded by a pair of dogs waiting for the leftovers. “The last time the paracos (local slung for “paramilitary”) were around, they stayed at the same house you are now”, he commented while having rice with yucca and meat. “I was walking nearby, carrying some sticks for the kitchen, when one of them said to me ‘Nice to shoot a bullet to this old man!’ and I looked at them and told them to do it.”
Filimón is 73 years old, and had two sons that were murdered by the army. His wife “got bored of me a while ago and left”. When questioned about his daily life he responded: “I work to keep moving, but I’m getting old”. I asked him what would he do if the paramilitary returned to the area, to which he answered, without a doubt, that he would move to another sidewalk of the Peace Community.

The first couple of days at Arenas Altas were spent in the trimming of the cacao trees, an essential task since the Community exports certified organic cacao and is often visited by surprise supervisions. Then, the cleaning of the path to Arenas Altas began, and that was when the ride got rocky. Firstly, because we came across a beehive of African bees. Alberto told us to remain quiet as we picked up the pace. Some bees caught up with us, and one of them stung my left arm. It hurt awhile, but it was not a big deal. On our way back, we had to go through the forest to avoid encountering the bees again. “Together, they have killed cattle” said Alberto, noticing my skepticism towards the power these immigrant bees really have. Leaving the path and shortening the way through the forest did save us from the bees, yes, but it presented us with a whole new set of risks. I have never been so obedient like when they said: “You will step only where I step, ok?”. We were in an area of frequent paramilitary-guerrilla confrontation, so there was a possibility of land-mines lying around; therefore, no stepping away from the path cleared by the leader.

We were finally able to make our way back to the path without a problem, when, as we approached a narrow pass, Bananito proposed a detour. He wanted to show us a spot where after the paramilitary and the guerilla fought, two bodies of the paramilitary were left unclaimed for several days. The year was 2011. The Community witnessed the moment when a group from the paramilitary, along with the army, went through the area in a helicopter, but did not actually retrieve the bodies. After repeated complaints before the Office of the Ombudsman, which denied the existence of bodies in the area, the Community decided to put together a delegation with the task of retrieving them and taking them to San José, where their disappearance had been reported by relatives. In a press release from that time, the Community explains its decision as follows: “A lot of people do not know us; he who has not walked with us wonders how is it possible that these paramilitary that have threatened us, that have pushed us away from our lands, are now being treated in a humanitarian way by us, to the point that we are now picking up their bodies to make sure they are buried in at least a dignified manner. Considering the criteria of the Death and Inhumanity System that surrounds us, this is not understandable. Our society is mainly ruled by the ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ policy. Our presidents encourage us, through their speech, to engage on a revenge against rebellion, by using chilling words of brutality. But we do not share those principles. Our fight for justice is completely foreign and contrary to any sentiment of revenge. We demand justice; we say NO to armed parties; we demand respect from them; we do not give in to their demands; we do not step back when they threaten us or before their displays of cruelty. They certainly generate fear and strong pain through their criminal behavior, but what they have never managed to accomplish and never will, is to create hate. [...] We believe in the dignity of any human being above any war, and that is why we opted for our Community. [...]”.

Traces of the combat still remained at the place, bullet holes in rocks, paramilitary clothing lying around, a rain boot with a bullet hole. To picture in my mind the state of those bodies after being abandoned in the forest for 10 days, was quite complicated. None of the members of the group felt comfortable in that spot, so we resumed our walk back to Arenas Altas after a few pictures.

Back at the house, Orfidia had already prepared dinner: rice with beans, fried eggs and salad, a very similar menu to breakfast and lunch. It would be impossible to endure heat, humidity and physical exhaustion if having breakfast the Uruguayan way, toasts and coffee with milk, maybe mate, so I had to get used to hyper-caloric breakfasts. Like every afternoon in Arenas Altas, it was time for dominoes. I teamed up with Alberto, against Cecile and Jesús Emilio. Don Filimón, who swung by to chat but refused to play, observed this hand attentively as he spoke to those waiting for their turn. As time went by, the sun set and the lanterns lit up, the lessons Cecile had taken with Jesús Emilio became more evident. We were being thrashed, 93 to 15, they were seven points away from defeating us. We could not get distracted even for a second, we had to keep in mind exactly which dominoe we would play next, and try to figure out their strategy before they guessed ours. There was a chance that we would have a stroke of luck and get five double dominoes at once and the hand would be done right there, we would count the opposite points and probably win the game that easily. I began picking up my dominoes, to find some doubles among them, double 4, double 5, double 1 and double 2. I had only one domino left to pick, if it was another double, the game was over and we had won, otherwise, it was a very tough hand to win (it is very difficult to win the game over with only four doubles). The emotion was high, but I had to put on my best pokerface and disguise the nerves of picking up that last domino. It ended up being 5-2. Disillusion had me playing that last hand when I had already given up; we lost fairly, guess you can’t win’em all. Mr. Filimón smiled, although his face was saddened with the news of our return to San Josesito the following day. “I am alone here again”, he said, “you will be missed”. “But we will be back after the end of the week, Mr. Filimon”, Jesús Emilio replied, “there is a lot of work left to be done around here”. It was already late in farmer’s schedule, and we had a three hour walk to San Josesito ahead of us early in the morning, so it was time for everyone to hit the hammocks.

No hay comentarios.: