They are called Pueblo Nuevo (new town), Bella Flor (beautiful flower), Nueva Esperanza (new hope), El Tesoro (the treasure). Names that clearly show what "humanitarian zones" mean to the people who live there. Hundreds of families displaced by violence in Colombia's rural areas are trying to rebuild their lives in these zones while at the same time demanding the return of their land.
In October 1996, eight peasants were killed by paramilitaries in the Brisas de la Virgen community, in Chocó Department, in north-eastern Colombia. Some families in the community fled their homes, but not all of them. The disappearances and massacres began two months later. Dozens of bodies were seen floating down the River Atrato.
In February 1997, with the stated goal of annihilating the left-wing rebels, the armed forces launched Operation Genesis. The bombardment lasted for days in the municipality of Riosucio. As the name of the operation suggests, it was an attempt to create a new world: one in which there would be no place for peasants of African descent, indigenous peoples and the people of mixed race who had lived on the land for generations.
The families that remained began the long journey that comes with forced displacement. According to Amnesty International, around 6,500 people in 49 communities in the municipality of Riosucio had to leave their homes. Most of them walked through the jungle for weeks. Many died on the way.
Enrique Petro and other community leaders were among the survivors. At the beginning of December, they shared their experiences with a Living Letters ecumenical delegation from the World Council of Churches (WCC). The delegation visited them in the Las Camelias humanitarian zone in the River Curvaradó catchment area, where 18 families now live.
"Living Letters" are small teams that work within the framework of the WCC's Decade to Overcome Violence. They travel to different parts of the world where Christians are striving to promote peace in violent situations. Their goal is to express the solidarity of the ecumenical community and learn how people are dealing with the challenges that face them.
The Living Letters delegation that visited Colombia from 6 to 12 December 2008 listened to first-hand accounts by members of communities that had suffered up to 15 forced displacements over the years. They recalled how they were forced to abandon their homes because of the violence – especially violence perpetrated by the army and the paramilitary – and denounced how they were evicted from their land.
Business is business
The Chocó region is of military importance for all parties to the conflict that has involved the army, two groups of left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitaries since the 1960s. Close to the border with Panama and covered by tropical forest, it is a key area for arms trafficking.
The region is also of great economic interest. It is potentially the site of a canal linking the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans and of a highway linking Panama and Colombia. It is also rich in minerals, cultivable land, timber and biodiversity.
The area's population, which individually and collectively has legitimate property rights to land whose value has multiplied tenfold since 1996, has become an obstacle in the way of military actors and powerful economic interests.
Today, transnational companies use extensive areas of this territory for African oil palm plantations and for cattle rearing.
"We have seen how economic projects use the armed conflict as a pretext to evict peasants and steal their land", said Rev. Christopher Ferguson, the WCC representative to the United Nations and member of the Living Letters team. "Transnational companies are responsible for the suffering of these communities", he added.
In addition to the Curvaradó region and the cities of Bogotá and Barranquilla, some members of the Living Letters delegation visited the city of Trujillo, in the Valle del Cauca Department, in the east of the country. Trujillo is infamous for the cycle of violence that claimed over 340 victims between 1989 and 1994, but the killings and disappearances continue today.
"I was impressed by the way in which the families of the victims have been able to transform their suffering into resistance through the search for truth, justice and reparation", said Bishop Aldo Etchegoyen, of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina and member of the Living Letters team.
Zones of refuge and resistance
Since 1999, some of the displaced people in Curvaradó and neighbouring Jiguamiandó have tried to return to their homes with the support of non-governmental organisations, including the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission.
In 2001, a military and paramilitary attack caused new displacements. This exodus coincided with the introduction of African oil palm plantations on the evicted communities' land. Less than a decade later, the tropical forest has become a "green desert" of oil palm trees.
In 2002 and again in 2003, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) called for the right to life of the members of the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó communities to be protected.
Starting in 2003, the humanitarian zones of Pueblo Nuevo (90 families), Nueva Esperanza (47 families) and Bella Flor (30 families) were created in Jiguamiandó. Three other zones, including El Tesoro and Las Camelias were created in Curvaradó as of 2006.
The humanitarian zones are clearly demarcated areas inhabited by the civilian population where armed forces of any kind are not supposed to enter. In the zones, groups of families help each other to protect themselves against militarization while at the same time defending their rights. Since March 2005, these zones have the backing of the IACHR, which has required the Colombian government to grant them special protection.
In the light of the continued presence in the region of what the Organization of American States calls "illegal armed structures, linked to illicit economies", one of the responses of churches and ecumenical agencies is to provide the communities with a permanent protective presence.
This is done through volunteers – normally two – who live with the families in the humanitarian zones, Fr Alberto Franco, of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission, explained to the Living Letters delegation.
"Now that we are leaving, we want to tell the whole world about what has happened to these children, elderly people and widows who have told us about their pain and loss", said the Rev Jorge Ziljstra, secretary for the Caribbean and Great Colombia region of the Latin American Council of Churches. "In the midst of uncertainty, fear and threats against their lives, they continue to resist and to fight for justice and dignity."
Juan Michel handles media relations for the World Council of Churches. He is from the Evangelical Church of the River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina