Colombia: Where Being a Civilian is Dangerous

February 22, 2012

By Peter Drury, Colombia campaigner at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London

Members of the Peace Community at the commemoration of the massacre of February 2005. (c) Amnesty International

It’s 3:00am, it’s the center of the village of San José de Apartadó, dominoes are slammed on a table, children play football, cycle around the square, play ludo. There’s a hum of voices and the sound of frogs pierces this tropical night. This all sounds fairly tranquil. Only it’s not.

The year is 1999 and these people are staying up all night, knowing that at any moment, they could be attacked by paramilitaries working with the Colombian Army. Only a few months earlier paramilitaries stormed the community killing at least two people and injuring other members of the Community. After this attack members of the community take it in turns to stay up on guard, ready to react if the paramilitaries strike again.

The fear is palpable and false alarms cause panic. But these people are determined – they may live with fear everyday but they are going to continue to demand their right as civilians not to be drawn into the armed conflict in Colombia, and not to be forced to abandon their homes.

The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó was created in 1997 as a means to send a clear message to the participants in Colombia’s armed conflict – guerrilla forces, Colombia’s army and the paramilitaries operating with them – that they are civilians and that they have a right not to be drawn into the conflict and remain living on their lands. This is a dangerous demand in the context of Colombia’s armed conflict and has cost the Peace Community dearly.

The army and paramilitaries repeatedly label the inhabitants as subversives and have carried out the vast majority of the over 170 killings and enforced disappearances of members of the Peace Community and other civilians living in the same area since 1997. Despite the fact that the attacks are often coordinated in close coordination with the army, virtual impunity protects the perpetrators of these human rights abuses. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have also killed members of the community, including community leaders, and accused them of siding with their enemies.

Amnesty International has campaigned for many years to support the community’s demands for justice and safety, together with national human rights organizations and international human rights NGOs. Members of the Community have told us:

“We thank you very much for the solidarity Amnesty International members and supporters have shown us – it is so important for the survival of our community. The international pressure generated through your actions give us hope, because the armed actors have said that without it, they would already have eliminated our community.”

Despite the international support attacks against the community continue – on February 4th, 2012 paramilitaries shot at a member of the Peace Community.

So let’s keep up the efforts to support them! The Peace Community must be free to carry on demanding their right as civilians not to be drawn into the conflict, to live in safety and to stay living in the area it chooses. Join our faxjam here to send a strong message to the Colombian government demanding measures to protect the Community as deemed appropriate by the Community.