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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.

By Chris Kraul
LA Times Staff Writer
September 18, 2006

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.

A deeply religious Catholic who once considered joining the priesthood, Kozak is a pacifist whose ambition is to work nonviolently to help solve conflicts. After graduating from a Jesuit college in the Midwest, he went to El Salvador to work with street gang members. Then he heard about the peace community's refusal to leave its land and volunteered as an accompanier.

The accompaniers have hardly made the community bulletproof.

In February 2005, San Jose's leader and co-founder, Luis Eduardo Guerra, his girlfriend and his 11-year-old son were hacked to death along with five others shortly after he announced that the peace community was expanding its boundaries to include another village. His wife had been killed the year before by an army grenade.

The killings prompted outrage among international human rights groups but, as with so many other violent deaths in this region, no suspects have been jailed nor charges filed.

Many community members blame the army for the deaths, but the government denies responsibility. The investigation has been hampered somewhat by the community's refusal to cooperate fully for fear of reprisals.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has little use for neutrality in what he has described as "total war" against subversive forces. Last year, he accused the community of being supporters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country's largest leftist guerrilla group. Community leaders and international peace activists say Uribe's charge is baseless.

The U.S. Embassy was concerned enough about the killings of Guerra and the others to withhold human rights "certification" of Colombia for several months last year, delaying the delivery of $35 million of the $600 million in annual Plan Colombia aid aimed at fighting drugs and terrorism.

Appalled by the violence, the Organization of American States demanded that the Uribe government work with the peace community on protective measures. But two months after the killings of Guerra and the others, Uribe unilaterally established a national police base in the middle of San Jose de Apartado.

The community objected, saying any such base should have been located far outside town. Most of the residents fled and no longer consider the town of San Jose part of the neutral zone.

"No one has forgotten what happened in Bojaya," said Araiza, the community leader, referring to a town in neighboring Choco state where guerrillas in 2002 killed 119 peasants in a mortar attack after the paramilitary units army briefly occupied the village.

Three more members have been killed since the February 2005 slayings.

The Uraba region was a guerrilla stronghold until the late 1980s, when the right-wing paramilitary movement began as a landowner-financed reaction to counteract the leftists' widespread extortion, kidnappings and killings.

The two sides have fought a bloody war for dominance ever since, with ideology taking a back seat to competition for control of Colombia's drug and arms trade and real estate. Periodic advances and retreats by opposing sides have caused an ebb and flow of evacuations of poor Uraba farmers such as Vargas.

Colombia's paramilitaries are in the process of disarming, but Uribe's growing army is filling the vacuum.

In Arenas Altas, Vargas scratches out a living as a sharecropper, renting land on which she raises pigs, rice and corn. Malaria, dengue fever and several varieties of poisonous snakes may prevail, but Vargas, a tiny, care-worn woman whose skin and expression reflect a life of hardship and tragedy, says she is happy to be in the countryside. During her years as a nomad, she spent time in the city of Medellin, where she says people are treated as "machines" and she nearly died of starvation and loneliness.

"When you have no job, no place to stay and you don't know anybody, you are just an object of reproach in the city," Vargas said, adding that she was reduced to begging in the streets to survive. "At least in the country you can grow what you need to sustain yourself."

In a community where everyone seems to have lost a loved one to the arbitrary power of the gun, Vargas is no exception: Her husband and two brothers were killed in the conflict. She doesn't like talking about how they died.

Although the violence now seems deceptively distant much of the time, the village has not been forgotten by the warring sides.

In March, a gun battle between guerrillas and the army broke out; as the two sides fired at each other from opposite ridges, bullets whizzed over the town in the small valley below. One soldier died in the volley.

Vargas believes the presence of Kozak and fellow FOR volunteer Gilberto Villasenor saved villagers from another forced evacuation order, or worse.

"If they weren't here, we would have been crushed," she said.

Just before the battle erupted, Vargas and the two volunteers approached troops who had gathered in the soccer field below the town. She knew guerrillas were in the area, and asked the soldiers to release a father and son they had detained and leave to avoid bloodshed.

Kozak, who described the half-hour shootout as "terrifying and deafening," spoke admiringly of Vargas' courage, saying that she put herself in harm's way to spare the village from violence, that her stubborn insistence on speaking up and staying put had furthered the cause of peace.

Vargas, who still hopes the war will end and she will one day return to her farm in Esperanza, said she had little left to lose.

"Living in the country," she said, "is the only way I know to exist."

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