Colombia's 'battle free' villages

The FARC released 14 captives Sunday, bring-ing the total released to 47 over past two weeks.

Jesus Giliberto Guzao had so little in the house he shares with his wife and five children in this poor tropical village that he can't explain why masked men came by to burn his house down.

"They were terrorizing the whole town. Then they stopped here, pushed me to one side, spread the gasoline, and set everything afire," he says. "The clothes we're wearing is all we have left."

But like other families here that were burned out when a gang of paramilitary fighters passed through on March 5, Mr. Guzao has a hunch: "The armed parties are really bothered that some of us have declared ourselves neutral," he says. "It's an idea they want to destroy."

After years of terrible loss in the nation's four-decade war, San Jose de Apartado declared itself a battle-free zone in 1997 - an example since followed by a growing list of Colombian villages. They are all fed up with civilians' getting caught in the crossfire.

But that declaration has not spared San Jose. In fact, as Guzao suggests, it may have fed the fury of paramilitaries, guerrilla groups - even Army units - that choose to only see civilians as either for or against them.

But it has given a sense of solidarity and common purpose to this community of 300 families, spread over ridges and valleys of banana and cacao fields. It has also afforded the village a sense of international protection and support for their "peace community" cause. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has even ordered the Colombian government to takes steps to ensure San Jose's safety.

"At least with the interest of the foreigners, the fighters think twice before killing people here," says Antonio Zapata Castaneda, who has lost three of his six children to the conflict. "If it weren't for the community, I believe [the combatants] would have finished off San Jose long ago."

Last month, thousands of Indians in the region of Cauca marched from their remote communities to the city of Cali to declare their neutrality in the war. The march was prompted by an ugly increase in the numbers of massacres across Colombia this year, primarily at the hands of paramilitary groups.

Hope for peace revived

Hope for peace in Colombia's long war was revived Sunday after the country's largest insurgent army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), released 14 more of its captive police and Army soldiers. The release by the FARC, which followed a government release of 11 FARC guerrillas, brought the total released by the insurgents over recent days to 47, surpassing the 42 prisoners the FARC agreed to let go in an accord reached June 2.

The FARC's show of goodwill buoyed a country that has grown impatient with peace talks. But as little San Jose de Apartado has learned, hopeful turns in a long war have not always led to long-term peace.

Located in the lush mountains of Uraba, a Colombian region close to the Panamanian border, San Jose has long been the target of violence. As paramilitaries and the Army have fought to take back a strategic region long under the FARC's grip, locals have suffered.

Community leaders say 85 people have been killed here since the peace community was declared. Most were victims of paramilitary gangs - including six campesinos (peasants) shot in the head at a public execution last year. But 13 were killed by the FARC, who accused the victims of having collaborated with paramilitaries.

It's a cruel but familiar tale: One side in the fighting passes through, taking food, clothing, and other supplies as a due sign of support. Then another side arrives, kills villagers for "supporting" the enemy, and takes what's left. The cycle repeats.

"It's the classic scenario of 'If you're not my friend, then you're my enemy,' " says Sandra Alvarez, the Colombia program coordinator for Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based organization that is one of many international groups supporting the "peace community" ideal.

Maintaining a round-the-clock presence in San Jose are representatives of Peace Brigades International, a Canadian organization whose observers act something like protective shields for the town. They even accompany villagers over the dangerous road into nearby Apartado to sell their produce.

"We want our presence to facilitate the work of the villagers ... but not to solve anything or influence them in any way," says Eleanor Openshaw, with Peace Brigades in Bogota. "The idea is to create the conditions so Colombians can address their problems themselves."

San Jose's declaration of "peace community" status has isolated it further from Apartado, so community organizers have set up an independent town council. It enforces rules against guns and alcohol, as well as community principles forbidding aiding any armed actors in the conflict.

The council also promotes a cooperative that grows baby bananas, shipping dozens of crates to the US every week. "We think the proof that our community approach is working is seen in the fact that families are no longer leaving," says Wilson David Iguita, coordinator of San Jose's council. At one point before "peace" status was declared, San Jose was down to three families.

Still, community leaders are careful not to declare any kind of victory in their struggle. Relations with Colombian civilian authorities remain strained, with officials accusing San Jose of closing itself off from them. Many villagers, unable to explain why paramilitary groups have continued to terrorize the town, suspect the army of at least turning a blind eye to paramilitary activity.

A father's legacy

My husband always said he would fight to the last day of his life for this community, because it was our only way of declaring respect for life when it seems there is none," says Elna Areiza, whose husband was killed in last year's massacre.

"What else do I have to pass on to his children, but this idea that peace is greater than war?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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