CONFLICT | 12/2/2009 12:00:00 AM
Those who did return
The 3.000 residents of Union Peneya ran away in one night. After three years of being displaced by the violent conflict, they overcame their fears and came back. This is the story of the community honored by the National Peace Prize.
This is what 3.000 people who had called Union Peneya— a small town in Caquetá— their home, had to do in a morning of January 2004. After three years and 23 days, a time they keep close to heart because it is also a symbol of their victory, they returned. They have just been honored with the National Peace Prize for taking the decision to return to their home, situated in the midst of illegal crop fields and guerrilla territory. They returned, even with a slight mistrust against the Colombian State, who for a long time forgot about them.
“What peace? Do you think there can be peace with a rifle?” Says José Romero, 78, one of the oldest inhabitants, when asked about the prize. And with nostalgia, he remembers olden times, when he arrived from Tolima in the sixties and, with his hands, started to build the town from scratch. In a few years time, Union became a prosperous village.
Yet, disappointment never leaves his face. Not far away, in a field, children rehearse every afternoon with stones. The sounds of traditional songs make you think hope has returned. “This is our conservatory. We started with a damaged drum and an un tuned trumpet with the idea to offer training opportunities to the young” comments Carlos Villa, known as “Coach,” who after working in a pet store is now dedicated to prove that music can also help to overcome difficulties.
”Many wonder if its worth honoring a community who is still battling with a very serious problem” affirms father Dario Echeverri, president of this year’s juries. “I think its like with Obama and the Peace Prize, it was meant as a stimulus for his conciliatory politics. The prize for Union Peneya honors a group of people who toughened up in the face of displacement: they returned. And this makes them a referent for others who want to recover their decent livelihoods.”
Honoring their name
”If nobody tells a visitor that this town was abandoned and in ruins, he would even suspect it” argues Neruda Diaz, director of Fundacomunidad and the one who presented the people of the town as candidates for the prize. “Its people returned and started to rebuild La Union, which has always deserved the name.” Union, in Spanish as in English, is synonym of unity, merger, coming together. Neruda is the daughter of Saturnino Díaz, a man who came from Tolima trying to escape the violence of the sixties and seventies. In that time, in unison with other villagers, they founded La Union Peneya, in the municipality of La Montañita. In those years, the inhabitants had to travel for hours to be able to buy groceries or receive medical aid. In January 1969, 20 families, just with machetes, wood and straw, built a town without the help from the state. Its location was strategic, in the middle of various small villages, and it instantly blossomed.
Some affirm that everything started to change with the arrival of the guerrilla, especially the front 15 of the FARC, who was there to stay and was the maximum authority in the town for almost thirty years. “I remember one night in the seventies, when masked men organized a reunion in the town square. I was 12 and, like all the other children, received a Christmas present. But they killed the inspector and two businessmen. We didn’t know why” recalls Abelardo Ortiz, present day president of the Local Board.
The reign of terror
“Then, it was the coca bonanza and many farmers started to switch crops” adds Ismael Ospina, president of the Council of La Montañita. Since that moment, La Unión transformed itself: commerce boomed and the coca was even used as cash. “It was a great time for canteen. There was a man who sold tons of coca paste and when he arrived for some drinks, he always paid with a thick bulk of bills. He threw them to the sky to get the waiter’s attention” says Abelardo.
The townsmen say las FARC, who controlled the coca business, imposed their rules. Those caught committing adultery or fighting with their spouses had to pay fines or had to do forced labor. Thieves were ostracized or sentenced to death.
The ruins of the cemetery are proof of their dominion because a guerrilla commander, Mocho Cesar, built a marble mausoleum to honor his fallen men. They say he died in combat just days before the community was displaced and that his gravestone became a site of pilgrimage, where some even come to ask for miracles.
The people of La Union have learned to mistrust the army. “It is true that some militia men were present in the town but even though it was not, just because it was La Union, everybody thought it was a guerrilla town” regrets Heriberto Sánchez, former president of the Displacement Association.
By then, the order had already been given: if the army approached, the people had to abandon town or, if they didn’t, they would become a military target. “They didn’t want anybody to help the soldiers” comments Ospina, “And who were we to say no to la guerrilla?” concludes Cristanta Buitrago.
The darkest night
On january 4th, 2004, the Sunday service was interrupted by the sounds of military helicopters. “The father told us to keep calm, but that those who had something to do in their houses could leave” tells Pedro Torres. People started to run, terrified. Some say they didn’t understand what was happening until somebody, maybe even a militia men, knocked on their doors and told them it was time to leave. “ I grabbed my oldest sweatshirt, put on my boots, and took off my rings to keep them safe. I thought it was like any other incursion and that the army, like many times before, would be here in a matter of days” recalls Linsadis Romero, who exited the town with her 8 year old son and a newborn daughter in her arms. In the morning, a human stampede, with sick people, a blind man and pregnant women—one even gave birth on the way— left town. “My car is for ten people, but I made 24 fit” tells professor Villa. In the midst of the rush, few had time to recover their savings, money they had put in their walls, mattresses or even beneath the floor.
Those from La Union parted ways and ended up in different villages. “We arrived in an empty school and knocked the doors down to spend the night. I will never forget the next day, when we started sharing the sparse food we had and we realized there was nothing to put it on. We found a dog’s plate and used it. A friend kept the plate as a souvenir” adds Villa, who months later, like everybody else, realized that the army meant to stay. The operation was part of Plan Patriota, a national effort oriented towards the recovery of lost territory. And while that occurred, the guerrilla would not let anybody return. To earn a living he decided to join a band in Florencia, the department’s capital. The band was called “ the cool guys from the south”, famous for their song “the coca anthem.”
Tears fall from the eyes of Abelardo Ortiz when he remembers how difficult it was to leave everything behind. “In La Union, I lived from the construction business. I had never had to pay rent and had never ran out of food. I had to work cutting fields and the little I earned was only enough for a potato soup”. Mariela Torres, another villager, explains that her mother lost her memory due to the trauma of leaving home. “She just lost her mind.”
Only the elderly refused to abandon La Union, like Paula Diaz, 102, accompanied by her daughter and great-great granddaughter. “They heard gunshots and fearing someone would destroy their house, they moved to another one and kept silent. The army realized they were there when their parrot starting talking. Three months later, when a gas cylinder destroyed their water tank, the soldiers convinced them to leave, and they did, in a helicopter”—recalls her granddaughter Noeila Bello.— “ She did not want to die in a foreign land and her dream became true when we finally returned. Grandma died this year.”
Over the ruins
In 2006, the community leaders, who had never lost their desire to return, found support in the farmers, who also wanted to go back. “We started organizing meetings in small towns and decided to create a commission to speak with the army and the guerrilla. We wanted to tell them that the only thing we wanted was to return to our home and live in peace”, explains Abelardo, a member of the group.
Their tenacity worked and after many setbacks, the committee was allowed to travel for the first time, along members of state institutions, to examine the zone. “When I entered the church, even Christ’s wounds were bigger. They had perforated him looking for money” says father Israel Betancur. Nothing, even the saint, was spared. The army affirms it reached the town days after the eviction and that the militia men and bandits were responsible. Yet, “those displaced presented complaints against the State for acts of pillage by the military” adds Alvaro Castelblanco, defender of the people in Florencia.
Even though La Union was in ruins, their wish, returning, did not fade. “My husband, who was part of the commission, told me to prepare myself because we were going back to a garbage dump” says Linsadis. And she saw it with her own eyes on January 27, 2007, when, as the sun exited, the returning caravan arrived at La Union Peneya. “I didn’t even recognize by own shop between the bushes. But I went to work immediately. The first night we slept on rotten mattresses because we were afraid of snakes. But after three days, and thanks to a loan from a family member, the shop was up and running.”
Some decided to stay away from a heartbreaking past, like Rosalba Olivera, one of the town’s founders, whose son was murdered in the nineties, she says, for serving in the military. “It is too hard to return because it was the place where he was born, where he grew up and where he was taken from me. With time, I was able to recover what was lost in the displacement. But he will never return.”
Those who did come back know there is still a long way to go but, like Linsadis, they all share a common wish: “When death surprises me, it better be here.”