Far from the headlines, a moving anniversary in Colombia is inspiring activists in Canada
By Kathy Price, Colombia campaigner with Amnesty International Canada
Amnesty activists in Canada are joining with courageous families in rural Colombia to celebrate an inspiring anniversary: an anniversary of resistance, hope and the importance of solidarity.
March 23rd marks twenty years since families in the verdant countryside of San José de Apartadó, desperate to protect their children from a vicious armed conflict, joined together to form a peace community.
With enormous courage and determination, the families actively asserted their right as civilians not to be drawn into the armed conflict. They formally declared that they would refuse entry into their territory by any armed combatants – whether soldiers, paramilitaries or insurgent forces -- and also refuse to comply with demands by combatants for information or supplies.
In so doing, the families of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community ironically became targets of suspicion and deadly violence. Scores of women, men and even children have been threatened, attacked, sexually assaulted and killed by all of the armed actors, though mostly at the hands of soldiers and their paramilitary allies.
The violence forced families to flee for their lives. But they returned and knowing only too well the consequences of their stance, they continued to hold true to their principles as a peace community.
This heroic, if little-known, struggle has a Canadian connection.
Amnesty Canada groups and letter writers from Napanee to Vernon, and many other places, responded without hesitation to appeals from the peace community for international support.
As inhabitants reported new threats, our activists sent messages of concern to Colombian authorities, signalling that Canadian eyes were watching.
The Peace Community told us more lives would have been lost were it not for this action.
Our activists found other creative, uniquely Canadian means to signal their support. No one will forget the snow sculpture created by Amnesty activists in Hampton, New Brunswick, a frozen replica of the peace community’s monument for its victims, which was destroyed during a forced displacement. The message on the snow sculpture wished the community a safe return to their homes. The Hampton group also sent the peace community a beautiful handmade solidarity quilt.
Inspired by colourful stones in the peace community (below left), painted to honour inhabitants who were assassinated, activists in Ottawa also painted stones (below right) and delivered them to local media to raise awareness.
When the peace community organized a march for justice, activists in Canada sent footprints with messages that said: "I walk with you for human rights" and "You are not alone".
All of this has been deeply appreciated by the men, women and children of the peace community.
You only have to look at the embroidered message held up by the young inhabitant below left to see what our support means: “Thank you for your solidarity. It enables us to build our future.”
But as the peace community celebrates its 20th anniversary, our active solidarity is needed now more than ever.
The community has reported new death threats from paramilitaries who have entered the area, with the acquiescence of military units in the area. Colombian officials claim that paramilitaries demobilized and are no longer active. But the facts tell a different story, one of great danger for vulnerable civilians.
As we join to celebrate two decades of struggle for rights and survival by the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, it is vital that we raise our voices from Canada to call for their protection.
Messages from Canada have weight with a government in Colombia that is extremely mindful of its international reputation, especially since the signing of a peace agreement with FARC rebels that was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year.
Together with the brave women, men and children of San José de Apartadó's Peace Community, we can help achieve real peace for all in Colombia!