Alto de Julio
Colombian community gets organized, gets stronger
Each of the rural Colombian communities which we ― the Program for Ecumenical Accompaniment in Colombia (PEAC) ― have visited has its own distinct context, but there are elements which are common to all: the fear, the persecution, the blackmail, the threats; the attempts to resist, betrayal, corruption, guilt and blame and confusion.
As a result their farm lands and their communities were kept under surveillance and under siege, all this suffering to accomplish the disreputable aims of a few people who claimed to represent the community but who actually were only seeking to increase their own power.
PEAC is an initiative supported by the WCC and implemented by the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI) and other regional ecumenical organizations. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), through the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, also sponsors an accompaniment program in Colombia.
Today the leaders of these Colombian communities are clamoring for adequate living conditions, education, support for sports activities, new technologies and most especially for the chance to live in harmony, not only with each other, but with the natural world as well.
This is the current context in the community of Alto de Julio. This is a village located on the coast, on Alto de Julio Point, bounded on the northeast by Brisas del Mar, on the south by the hamlet of Chichimán and the village of Higuerón.
The first inhabitants arrived in 1976, and settled in this very hilly place which also has a beautiful beach. The name derives from the name of its founder, a man called Julio and the hilly terrain high above the sea.
The community manages to support itself through fishing and farming, although there is not actually much land suitable for planting and they do this in spite of the pressure from large landowners who seek to appropriate these holdings.
The village also has a small daycare center and a little elementary school. One of the frequent calamities they contend with is the condition of the road, which is so bad that when it rains there is no access to the community.
The violence here was most intense between 2001 to 2009. It was common that those who terrorized them and were often their executioners would take children captive in order to demand ransom from their parents. The amounts they demanded be paid were often in excess of 350,000 pesos ($200) and if the money couldn’t be raised they would be threatened with death or killed, or obliged to do forced labor, or be made to join one of the armed groups.
Most of the leaders of the community fled. Others who stayed were killed. The people who have survived in this community suffered intense psychological violence, as they were also made to watch as friends and neighbors were tortured in front of them.
My PEAC partner Isabel and I have been present with the community since March 18. On that day, after we had been introduced formally to the village, we began to listen to the testimonies of those who felt moved to speak. Present with us were the pastors from the Colombian Methodist Church in Brisas del Mar, who have been in the area since 2009. They work together with the parents to try to create some sense of stability for these children in the aftermath of the violence.
The next day we began the process of collecting signatures for the victims´ organization. Then a president and a secretary for the group were elected by the community to represent them. Later we went to visit some more families and hear their testimonies and finally finished the day by setting the date for going to deposit the documents for the new organizations with the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office.
With their many expressions of affection and their hopeful smiles these people treated us so kindly that I was filled with a sense of peacefulness. And they never stopped bringing us things, from a refreshing glass of lemonade to all sorts of vegetables and fruits just picked in their gardens and fields.
And the children: What can you say about these children? They are simply wonderful, there is no other word to describe them! I’ve never before seen children so happy with the simple pleasures Mother Nature provides for them, children who look after their animals with such love and affection, children who can amuse themselves so easily just playing in the sea and the sand. I had such fun with them, running, playing, falling down, laughing at myself, all of us skipping and jumping together.
On our last day with the people of Alto de Julio ― May 3 ― we got to the ombudsman’s office very early, accompanying the leaders of the communities of Sincelejito, Higuerón and Alto de Julio. Thanks be to God, they agreed to see us, treated us courteously, and the documents bearing all the signatures were duly delivered. This generated much enthusiasm and hopefulness among the leaders.
Through experiences like this one I have begun to feel that our visits, house by house, to the most seriously affected families can indeed make a difference in this community, so that their sense of solidarity can be strengthened as they work to make decisions, to organize and begin to carry out their own advocacy so that there will be improvements made in public policies.
A man shared with us: “They took my son. They forced him to work for them and they told me that if I didn’t pay them they would kill him. The next day I managed to get the last of the 350,000 pesos they had demanded of me.”
In order to raise the ransom this man had to sell all his farm animals. Now he makes his living fishing, leaving the house at 6a.m., returning at 3 p.m. He lives with his wife, his daughter and his two grandchildren.
A woman shared with us: "They took my son too, and we had to pay them to give him back. A while before that they had taken my daughter to a big property they had taken for themselves, where she had to cook for them as a 'punishment' they said.”
Another man also told us about when his son was taken: He too had to pay, but he was slow to do so as he had no money. So they made the son join their armed group and now today he is in jail serving a sentence for this involvement which was forced on him.