Exposing those who sow terror

The date remains etched in my mind, 6th of September 2013. A particular day spent as a PBI volunteer in Colombia that I will never forget. Face to face with masked men carrying M16 rifles, never have I felt so empowered and so powerless at the same time. But, to understand what happened that day, you need to know a few things first. Some foundations to support the tale.

The Colombian conflict is very complicated. As well as rebel guerrilla groups trying to overthrow the government there are paramilitaries committing crimes on behalf of the army and seizing territory for wealthy landowners and companies. ‘Paramilitary’ literally means ‘for the military’ in Spanish and there are different types of groups in different parts of the country. In north western Colombia, towards the Panamanian border, the main group is called the Gaitanist Self Defence Forces of Colombia or AGC for its Spanish acronym.

The countryside in this region consists of mountainous jungle, fresh water rivers and wildlife. People survive through farming in small villages and hamlets. The land is incredibly fertile and there are natural resources beneath like gold, coal and gas which make it very valuable to whoever is in control.

During 2013 the AGC expanded their presence to dominate more and more of this territory. From their base in Sabaleta, in the north of San José de Apartadó municipality, the paramilitaries marched south to Rodoxali. They set up check-points, stole money and crops from the local farmers, accused them of supporting the rebels and demanded information on the rebels’ whereabouts using threats and intimidation.

The AGC told the young men that if they didn’t join the paramilitaries then they were obviously members of the guerrilla. “You are either with us or against us” they said, and they forcibly recruited people into their ranks. They got drunk, they fought amongst themselves, they fired their weapons and they even killed the local miller. This reign of terror caused the population to flee in all directions, without time to pack anything or even plan where to go.

Two of these families fled south for 4 hours until they arrived at one of the Peace Community settlements; a humanitarian zone accompanied by PBI. The Peace Community supported these displaced families as much as they could but they were very anxious about the crops, tools and livestock they had left behind. So, together, they decided to ask for protective accompaniment to go back and collect their belongings. I was volunteering with PBI in 2013 when we received this request.

Before we could even consider accepting such a mission, we had to conduct an in-depth risk analysis which involved phoning all the Colombian army commanders with jurisdiction over the region. They assured us that it would be safe to travel and that there were no paramilitaries in the area at all. In fact, they said, the paramilitaries were demobilised between 2003 and 2006.

This assurance from the authorities was very different to what we had heard from the locals on the ground. We consulted various other sources of information and finally decided to carry out the accompaniment. In our previous travels to this type of region, the paramilitaries usually disappeared before we arrived; they did not want their presence to be witnessed by internationals who would put a spotlight on their abuses.

And this is where the tale begins. On the day in question, myself and PBI colleague Clara rode mules with the displaced families and members of the peace community. We travelled for four hours up the river and, as we got closer, the atmosphere began to change. We had reached the first abandoned homes.

Some locals who had decided not to flee greeted us and explained that the paramilitaries had recently withdrawn. This was a good sign because it suggested that they were aware of the international presence and had decided to make themselves scarce. We continued and the families directed us up the valley. As their former home came into view, I was called to the front to be the visible foreign face in the white PBI T-shirt. There were soldiers in the homestead…

I initially suspected that they were Colombian army soldiers who had taken position to welcome us and demonstrate that they had the region under their control. But, as we got closer, I could see that these men were wearing wellington boots not the army-issue leather ones, they had bandanas around their necks and no army signature lapels. They were paramilitaries.

It was too late to turn back, we had seen them and they had seen us. My main job now was to make sure they knew we posed no threat so I identified us loudly and clearly. As it turned out, the paramilitaries were unprepared for this type of encounter and the commander started frantically speaking on his radio to find out what he should do. After receiving little response, he pulled his bandana up over his face and ordered his troops to do the same. He then turned towards me and introduced himself as alias “Martin” of the Gaitanist Self Defence Forces of Colombia. He extended his hand.

What ensued was a very awkward and uncomfortable conversation where alias “Martin” tried to convince us that his troops were actually there to protect the farmers, despite the fact that he was standing in front of a ransacked house, with their name spray painted on the walls and a tarpaulin loaded with stolen plantain which they were about to make off with.. But this was clearly not the time to debate him! Our objective now was to get as far away from these paramilitaries as possible, in case the rebels did actually attack and we became caught in the cross-fire.

So we listened to him patiently and then explained that our mission, which we had cleared with the Colombian army, was to accompany the families to collect their belongings. However, their presence put us at risk should the rebels attack. In the end, alias “Martin” actually volunteered to leave, to allow us to achieve our mission! Four more soldiers materialised from  the forest and the whole troop of about 10 marched off. When they had finally disappeared into the jungle, I turned to Clara and we both started to breathe again.

The families and the peace community didn’t waste a second. They chased chickens, put a lead on a pig, shook out rice, collected plantain, corn, some tools and personal belongings and we all made the journey back to the peace community settlement in Mulatos again. It took slightly longer than 4 hours this time but the mission had succeeded.

Back in the relative safety of the community, the families confirmed that the men we saw were indeed the same soldiers who had been terrorising them. We heard detailed accounts from the farmers themselves which coincided with reports from other NGOs who work in the region. Yet, when faced with representatives from the international community the paramilitaries were more exposed. They couldn’t risk harming a foreigner with an international support network. Any serious incident would have made the international news and damaged the government’s reputation.

This, and other experiences with PBI, showed me some incredible things. By building solidarity with the peace community, with PBI and our international support network, two rural families of limited means had managed to walk, completely unarmed into paramilitary-controlled territory and reclaim their belongings from a squadron of heavily armed soldiers.

I returned home with lots to think about. If they can achieve this in a war zone, what can we achieve in our communities?

By Dan Slee (PBI Colombia volunteer 2010-2013)