For Justice's Sake
by Camilo Castellanos
translated by Cecilia Zarate

In 1972, the Jesuits' Colombian Province founded the Center for Research and Popular Education, or CINEP (Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular). Like other such centers in Latin America, CINEP tries to transform the mindset and structures of society in a search for social justice through research, education, and community organizing, all inspired by a Christian vision of humanity.

Throughout its 26 years, CINEP has researched political violence, urban and rural poverty, and drug trafficking and has searched for peaceful solutions to the armed conflict that has devastated Colombia for more than 50 years now. To that end, CINEP helps educate and organize urban and rural communities. Its basic premise is that the people themselves are the main agents of their own development.

An important facet of CINEP's work is the documentation of human rights abuses. It interviews Colombians who have been chased from their homelands by violence and makes this growing databank of stories available to the governments of Colombia and the United States and to nongovernmental organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

CINEP researcher Camilo Castellanos presents one such interview and his words on CINEP's work.

"We came by horse. We brought two calves, a cow, an accordion, three horses with saddles, one with an umbrella, two without, plus the two horses that we were riding. Old Chepe brought along a small parrot.

"When we came to Caño Claro we encountered many armed people. I am not able to say how many. They told us to lie down. Francis, one of those with us, held my six-year-old sister and lay face down with her on the ground.

"One of the armed men said, ‘Leave the little girl standing.' They climbed on top of Chepe, the oldest one among us, and told him that they wanted to ride him like a horse.

"My little sister and I were sent to a house nearby. I saw them take our documents and throw them away. I heard one of them ask for plastic strings to tie our friends, and then they began to ask them questions. José, already tied and sitting, asked me for water, and I gave him some. Then they told Chepe to go with them to a little mound nearby. Francis and Manuel, who was drunk, were also taken to the little mound. They gave them a white liquid to drink which I did not recognize. I was standing near the door when I heard some shots.

For Justice's Sake logo

"When the men returned, the other armed men asked, ‘Who told you to shoot if the order was to use machetes?'

"They answered, ‘But they were going to escape.'

"They kept telling José that he was more slippery than a fish because he was trying to escape. At that moment some of them came over with a bloody machete and cleaned it with my shirt. I wanted to pick up my shirt, but they told me, ‘Leave that there.'

"Francis and the drunk man also asked me for water. But they told me not to give them too much because it would hurt them. In the end I gave them a little bit. Then Francis and the drunk said, ‘Tell the women that they should not count on us anymore.'

"My little sister started to cry. She said, ‘I won't go without Francis.'

"But Francis told her, ‘Goodbye, my child, go.' They left with Francis and the drunk. Then I heard some shots.

"They put us back on the horses and told us to leave. My little sister cried a lot. They kept everything we had brought with us."

The names and the places have been changed in this testimony of a fourteen-year-old Colombian boy, but that does not change a stark reality; he and his little sister are just two of the 17,000 campesinos who this year had to abandon their plots in Ríosucio, an area where two years ago 27,000 people lived; two of the million Colombians displaced by war in the last ten years; two of the 200,000 displaced in 1997 alone.

Ríosucio is located in Urabá, in the northwestern corner of Colombia, the best corner of South America, some say. Experts claim that this region of rainforests, banana plantations, and settlers' plots has the highest level of biodiversity in the world. But in Urabá, military, paramilitary, and guerrilla groups all struggle to gain territorial and political control. This private war that all want to win has created terror in the civilian population. Whoever triumphs, if anyone does, will control a rich land deserted of all people.

Three thousand campesinos have ended up living on top of each other at the coliseum in the coastal town of Turbo. Two thousand more are in the regional capital of Ríosucio. A similar number are exiled in the delta region of the Atrato River, while about a thousand have fled south to Quibdó. Many who flee from Ríosucio get to the big city of Medellín.

Campesinos in the city

Thousands of Colombian campesinos have been forced into makeshift communities in larger cities to escape violence perpetrated by the army, paramilitary groups, and guerillas in conflict.

The majority of displaced persons, however, end up in the village of Pavarandó. Pregnant women and nursing women, the elderly, the disabled, young boys and girls, all walk through the jungle for almost a month to get to the closest road where they join the procession of refugees heading for Pavarandó.

Almost without warning, Pavarandó's population of 600 mushroomed eightfold by September 1997. Like a chronic disease, a maze of plastic tents grows next to Pavarandó's only dirt road, and a sewer and an emergency aqueduct twist through its narrow passages. Destiny has forced these campesinos to live like animals.

Paradoxically, though, this subhuman condition has engendered something positive: it has forced the people to organize themselves to confront the disaster together. This is possible because a few years ago the Claretians from Ríosucio created community councils that have pressured the Colombian government to recognize titles to the ancestral lands that the people had possessed for centuries without titles or borders. This has given the people some hope.

The truth is that Pavarandó has ended up like a school for the displaced. There, thinking about their disgrace, displaced people started to understand how senseless their destiny was: in a war in which all the parties claim to be fighting for the benefit of the simple people, all, without exception, made these very people their victims.

This situation forced the displaced people of Pavarandó to act. On October 19, 1997, they created the Comunidad de Paz (peace community) de San Francisco de Asís in a ceremony attended by representatives from the diplomatic corps, regional religious authorities, and national and international nongovernmental organizations.

One member of the peace community in Pavarandó who has suffered in this struggle is a venerable older man we will call Alemán. He knows that where he is now is not his land; his land waits for him elsewhere like an abandoned bride.

"I miss my land and my land misses me," he says with the passion of a lover. All of Alemán's people share the feeling that he articulates, and Alemán has become the soul of the organization of the displaced and of the negotiation of their return with the authorities.

"Comunidad de Paz means rejecting ties with all of the armed groups," Alemán explains. "It means being a messenger for no one, demanding respect from whatever armed group comes your way, getting used to feeling the suffering of our neighbor as our own, respecting each other, loving each another, sharing everything."

The Colombian government has signed an agreement with the campesinos promising to secure minimal conditions for their return, including tools, transportation and communication equipment, and electrical plants. Reality, however, is far away from promises; only a few weeks after the agreement the armed men who had displaced the campesinos set fire to entire villages.

In spite of this tough situation, 700 men, women, and children, all displaced campesinos, returned to their villages this past January; they have been compensated for their year of suffering with the great happiness of returning home.

CINEP, together with the local dioceses, has been very much a part of this process. Together they have channeled much of the humanitarian aid, stimulated reflection about causes of and possible solutions to many problems, organized communities, and advised the people in their negotiations with the authorities.

Our country will achieve peace only by building a collective agreement on the kind of country we want. This agreement will commit the upper level of power in the country to work for peace and a rebirth of our society. But it will also make all citizens and their organizations, such as the Comunidades de Paz, into vital actors in the process. The best interest of everyone is, after all, the well-being of all of Colombia.


Author Camilo Castellanos is a lawyer who has been working as a researcher with CINEP for ten years.


St Peter Claver

The Slave of Slaves

Hundreds of black slaves in the New World found an advocate, friend, and servant in St. Peter Claver. Born in Spain in 1580, Claver joined the Jesuits at the age of 24. His spiritual mentor, St. Alphonsus Rodríguez, inspired him to journey to the New World as a missionary. In 1610 he arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, where he spent the rest of his life working with black slaves transported from Africa to work in Colombia, declaring himself to be a "slave of the slaves forever." He died in 1654 and was canonized in 1888.

by Carlos H. Parra-Pirela


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