‘Go and tell people that we are staying here’
We print here the translated and slightly abridged first part of the final report of the International Caravan for Life in South Bolívar.
The Caravan was a path breaking act of international solidarity, daring to enter South Bolívar, an area extending from the Magdalena River to the San Lucas mountains lying to the north east of Barrancabermeja. South Bolívar suffered apalling massacres two years ago and is now overrun by the paramilitaries. The report is important, it gives the world a glimpse of the life of a civilian population living under paramilitary seige.
The International Caravan for Life in South Bolívar was made up of 60 international representatives, different non-governmental organisations dedicated to the promotion and defence of human rights, from quite different perspectives and ideological positions.
We already had some information concerning the worrying human rights in Colombia. The choice of South Bolívar was because of direct requests from representatives of these communities who contacted European organisations. This prompted a preliminary analysis of the situation in South Bolívar, which corroborated that the area was under a blockade, concluding that this is a priority zone for solidarity action.
We came to give humanitarian support. It is important to insist that its material content does not principally determine the character of the aid. Material aid is almost symbolic considering the huge needs of the zone. On the contrary, the humanitarian content came through the moral, psychological support and the transmission of solidarity. The necessity of pointing out the blockade and breaking it, because it is causing a humanitarian crisis of Danteesque proportions for the victims trapped in this area. We came to get to know and support an exceptional model of organisation and resistance by civil-popular society in South Bolívar in its peasant variant (south) and in its mining peasant variant (north).
Who we met
After the press conference on 1st August the International Caravan for Life, picked up by all the communications media, became an event of great consequence. This important coverage meant that all sectors of Colombian society knew about the initiative and its objectives.
Many national organisations expressed their support for the initiative, and with the international organisations in the Caravan they generated a great movement of solidarity, thereby fulfilling one of our primary objectives: recognition for the communities in South Bolívar and a call to national and international attention to their difficult situation.
At the same time, voices and rumours against the Caravan were raised with the purpose of delegitimising it, and presenting obstacles in its way. On 3rd August the mayors of the towns of Cantagallo, El Peñón, Regidor, Simití, Santa Rosa, Morales, Arenal, Río Viejo, Puerto Wilches and San Pablo, were the first to oppose the Caravan, launching publicly through a signed letter unfounded accusations, linking the Caravan with specific processes or political groups. While we were staying in the city of Barrancabermeja, this caused us to lose a meeting with the mayor of San Pablo, so that he would guarantee the entry of the Caravan into the South Bolívar zone. This group of mayors made our onward progress conditional on us giving them the material aid. Moreover it was noted that the carriers were being threatened by the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries. This situation put in evident danger the lives of the Caravanistas…
In spite of the problems at San Pablo the Caravan went ahead, but with a contradictory feeling; on the one hand with the satisfaction of not having succumbed to the threats and of being able to continue and on the other with the disappointment of not being able to go to the south where the communities were expectantly waiting for our visit. At least we had the security that some comrades were already in the south zone from some weeks previously and they would be able to cope with the change of plan.
At last we set out in search of the objective that has brought us here with such force. We could not allow ourselves to be discouraged. As soon as we arrived at Moralitos we realised the necessity of the visit. At last we received a warm welcome, friendship from the peasant community representatives who came out to meet us and drive us in their cars to Micoahumado. They had been waiting for us for three days, worried about our delay and the situation in San Pablo, so they said; "already we were going out to find you".
Our first car journey, but we never though it would be so hard. Worried and troubled, at last we approached Micoahumado. Welcoming placards, and the streets full of people with expectant faces. The reception was merry, intimate and simple. The reality of a hardworking people full of dignity and hope that have been ignored… a people who resist and hope to be recognised.
Without hardly time to assimilate our emotions, nor evaluate the dramatic humanitarian situation in Micoahumado, we were on the road again to the mines. We felt for ourselves the lamentable state of the roads, after 14 interminable hours we spent the night at La Punta. From there the track was impassable for cars. It was there that we felt, amidst shouts and greetings, the strength of the mining people, and almost before we had realised it we were on our way again, on mule and by foot, another 4 or 5 hours journey. Our arrival was a festival of music, applause, laughter, hugs and tears. The two days of our stay were intense with mutual concern to share and get to know each other.
Below we record the objective data that were collected in our meetings with the communities and in our days spent together. What we want to highlight here is something that touched us deeply, and that is what seems to us to characterise these communities that are scarcely surviving in the hardest conditions; their capacity for resistance and the dignity with which these people confront their daily life and plan their future. "GO AND TELL PEOPLE THAT WE ARE STAYING HERE".
Evaluation of the Humanitarian Situation
The Caravan met with communities in five rural districts (Micoahumado, Mina Gallo, San Pedro Frío, El Dorado y El Paraíso) and three towns (Morales, Santa Rosa del Sur y Montecristo) within the area of South Bolívar that is held under political, military and information siege.
We consider in this report only one part of the more than 15 towns that host a population of more than 150,000 inhabitant who have lived in a prison since the exodus of 1998, when the communities managed to get an agreement from the National Government, that is signed by the President himself, on the region’s development and a protection plan for the communities.
We are dealing with broad stretches of country where all the civilian population is treated as being guerillas or closely linked with them. This branding, which has been repeatedly denied by the communities, is the argument used to justify murder, and the siege around the zone is truly a crime.
We are talking about a situation of total isolation that monopolises all dimensions of survival of entire communities. Analysing the data obtained through meeting and conversations with the communities we can conclude that the humanitarian situation is really dramatic.
There are more than 1,069 girls and boys not receiving formal education, either abandoned or for lack of an appointed teacher. Five teachers have had to leave their posts and the region recently due to death threats; four schools have been ransacked and burned. Of the 70 schools that should exist, only 36 are formally established and of these, the communities cover all the food and building costs. Nearly half of the schools are being funded 50% the communities and in some cases, at least seven, they are covering the whole salaries that should be paid by the Colombian government. The education situation is deteriorating, when we take into account that more than twenty teachers are threatened and nobody wants to come and do this job given the permanent threat of destruction in paramilitary operations.
The situation is much more serious in healthcare. There is not one government sponsored health project in the area. There are two health centres that the communities call "monuments" because they only serve as adornments, and there are no medical or para-medical staff, nor the necessary resources for them to operate. One of these centres was looted in the last paramilitary incursion.
The health crisis is so severe that the majority of infants have not received the basic vaccines. In the most serious cases the peasants and the miners have no alternative but to uproot themselves and go to the urban centres where they are not ordinarily attended or they are attended to at very high prices.
Mental health has also deteriorated in the child population as well as amongst adults, due to the situation of continuing threats, fear, isolation and lack of liberty to which the population is constantly subjected.
There are a number of basic medicines that are strictly controlled at the paramilitary roadblocks, all types of antibiotics, dressings, anesthetics, anti-malaria treatments and drugs. The districts have pleaded several times with the municipal administrations to give basic first aid kits to the communities, but they have not been listened to.
The communities are experiencing illnesses that used to be under control or eradicated, that are now reappearing extensively and becoming a real threat to the life of entire communities. Mal- nutrition, malaria and typhoid fever, nervous problems, hepatitis, yellow fever and back afflictions are some of the illnesses that are now daily fare.
This situation is further aggravated by the appearance of new illnesses provoked by indiscriminate fumigations that, as we were able to note through the testimonies of the communities themselves, negatively affect health and water quality, as well as subsistence crops with nefarious consequences for nutrition.
In our meetings with groups of women from the mining and peasant communities, we noted the lack of opportunity for women to participate in forums of discussion and decision making, as well as in the general social fabric. And yet as is normally the case in situations of social crisis, the women especially are suffering the consequences of poverty and violence.
We can confirm that public services do not exist in the region, despite the fact that there are figures in the municipal budgets for investments in these communities.
This lack of investment especially affects the roads, drinking water and sewerage, electric energy, telephones and communications in general. There are examples like Torera bridge that appears in official reports as a completed work, and yet in reality only has two columns built. The only way that the communities have got basic services such as roads, health centres, water supplies, communications and energy, is through their own efforts as is the case with the road linking Santa Rosa with San Lucas and la Punta.
In the mining zone it is calculated that the royalties on gold production collected by the state over three years total more than a thousand million pesos. And yet not a single peso was invested in the region. This makes clear the willful lack of attention to social investment by the municipal administrations, which together with the paramilitary-military siege have condemned these communities to absolute poverty pushing them into disappearance.
In spite of the existing subhuman housing, there is no programme of social housing in the zone. On the contrary, we knew of a case where a housing project for displaced people in a rural zone was diverted to the municipality of Santa Rosa.
One of the strategies used by the paramilitary groups to oblige the population to abandon its land is the burning and looting of their homes. We learnt of the destruction of more than 250 homes by paramilitary operatives. There are families who have had their home burned three times.
None of these inhabitants in these rural districts can travel safely to the urban centres without risk of being disappeared, threatened or at least verbally and physically assaulted, so that the great majority have spent years without going into the towns.
This is perhaps one of the primary objectives of the paramilitary and military siege. The most basic products necessary for survival have become illegal possessions that must be hidden to pass into or out of the zone under siege. This is the case with medicines, batteries, footwear (especially boots), dark clothes and, on occasions, any food product.
Receipts showing purchase of goods are demanded at the paramilitary checkpoints. In this way they check that the purchases fit in a fortnightly cycle, although some checkpoints allow weekly purchases. They do not allow more than 50,000 or 100,000 pesos worth of goods through [the purchasing power equivalent of about £50 to £100], a figure that varies from one checkpoint to another.
Since the people cannot descend to make their purchases, the trading mechanism has arisen of transporters of products take a risk in passing through the checkpoints. Although the paramilitaries have already announced that they will not permit this any more, which would mean that the people will be totally besieged.
In the days that we were with the peasant communities it was possible to see small plots of the coca plant, grown by the vast majority of the population. These are their only means of income given that the peasants do not have any other possibility of marketing their traditional agricultural products such as beans, yucca, coffee, fruit and vegetables.
Amongst the causes of this loss traditional crops cultivation, and the move to coca production, are: the high cost of transport; measures by the paramilitaries to stop marketing in the urban towns; the impossibility of free movement to places where buying takes place and the total absence of production incentives.
It must be made clear that throughout the region we met a will amongst the small producers growing coca leaves to substitute using manual means these illicit crops. This can be appreciated by reading the placards that we came across in one of the meetings at Micoahumado, "If coca is the cause of the war, we are ready to substitute it".
We know that the communities have formally presented to central government different proposals to substitute crops. We believe that aid and incentives across the region [would get rid of coca], rather than the poisonous fumigations that destroy the environment and the health of the populace.
One of the sectors that has been most affected by the siege has been transport. We know that more than 20 carriers have been threatened with death, and at least ten have been assassinated. In some case transport has been arbitrarily suspended by order of the paramilitary groups or under the form of an armed stoppage carried out by the insurgent forces.
Bogotá 20th August, 2001
To be continued in the next issue of Colombia Solidarity. Part II describes how the paramilitaries operate the Siege, and the recommendations of the Caravan.