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Village's Unarmed Rebellion

On strategic land in Colombia's civil war, a group of peasants stands up against violence. But a refusal to take sides offers little protection.

September 18, 2006|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

ARENAS ALTAS, Colombia — Ana Hilda Vargas was living in a place called Hope when the gunmen came to her farm and gave her an ultimatum: Leave your house in 48 hours or be killed.

"Everything I built in my youth and all that I had -- pigs, hens, mango and avocado trees, yucca, corn and bean fields -- I lost that day," Vargas said, recalling the terrible morning in 1997 when she was thrown off her land in the village of Esperanza by paramilitary members.

It wouldn't be the last time she would hear that chilling warning.

Over the next six years, the widow, now 50, was forced from one village to another by army, right-wing paramilitary and left-wing guerrilla groups vying for control of this strategic, mineral-rich region of northwest Colombia. One of 3 million displaced Colombians, she became a statistic in one of the hemisphere's longest-running humanitarian crises.

Finally, Vargas decided she'd rather die than be rootless again. Three years ago, she joined the "peace community" of San Jose de Apartado, where a group of 1,200 peasant pacifists is taking a brave stand against the country's civil conflict.

The community of three villages, which includes Arenas Altas, where Vargas lives, was formed in 1997 after a Catholic archbishop named Isaias Duarte -- who would be assassinated five years later -- encouraged the farmers to say no to war. It is one of 10 such peace communities, or "humanitarian zones," in Colombia, according to Justice and Peace, a human rights advocacy organization in Bogota, the capital.

"They are making a strong moral point at great risk to themselves," said Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group, a human rights advocacy office in Washington. "It's a very hard and daring venture which seems to almost invite attacks from the various armed actors."

Vargas lives off the land in this Xanadu-like corner of Colombia, creased by river chasms and carpeted with cedar, cacao and banana trees, accessible only by mule. Her village of 200 people, hemmed in by the jungle, is a neatly laid-out collection of wood-paneled shacks bordered by the community soccer field. Pigs and mules roam freely.

She and other members disavow any contact or collaboration with armed groups, and agree to work as a collective on crops, livestock and community projects and to share what they produce. The group is self-sufficient except for small grants from outsiders to build community projects.

But the community's profession of neutrality has not shielded it from horrendous violence.

Of San Jose's nearly 1,400 original members, 178 have been killed since 1997 by armed groups looking to clear the zone of suspected collaborators, appropriate valuable land for themselves or claim transit routes for arms and drugs traffic in and out of nearby Pacific and Caribbean ports.

Because of the risks and hardships, there has been no inrush of new residents: Since its founding, about as many members have joined as have fled.

Community leader Renato Araiza estimates that 80% of the victims have been killed by the army and rightist paramilitaries, the rest by the leftist guerrillas here in the Uraba region of Antioquia state. One day last year, his 16-year-old sister was killed by guerrillas for refusing to collaborate.

"Each side suspects us of helping the other one, and that's why they all want us to leave," said Araiza, who also has lost a cousin to the violence. "We are trying to change the logic of armed groups who think guns solve anything."

In a small park in San Josecito, another village in the community, rocks painted with the names of the victims and the dates of their deaths serve as a humble memorial. There are reminders elsewhere of the price the community has paid. A kiosk in La Union, three miles from here, was the scene of the execution-style killings of six community members by suspected paramilitaries six years ago.

"We've gotten it from all sides," said Alicia Guzman, whose husband was killed in 1992, leaving her with three daughters to raise alone.

The death toll would undoubtedly be higher if it were not for the presence of volunteer "accompaniers" provided by international groups such as San Francisco-based Fellowship for Reconciliation, or FOR, and Peace Brigades International, a British group. The death rate has tapered off since 2002, when FOR began placing two volunteers in the community on a full-time basis.

"The hope is that by being here, the armed groups won't commit acts that would create an international public relations problem. The political costs increase if something happens to us," said Paul Kozak, a 24-year-old Huntingdon, Pa., native and FOR volunteer here.

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