The two Colombians arrived on my doorstep one rainy night last November like two lost puppies. I offered them food, which they accepted reluctantly and then gobbled down as if they were starved. I showed them their bedroom, where I had lit a fire to make it homely. One had not slept in the same bed twice during the last three months. Slowly they began to relax. They even tried to crack a joke. ‘So how does it feel to be harbouring terrorists,’ they asked me?
But this is no joke. ‘Terrorist’ is the new name that the US is allowing President Alvaro Uribe to call the insurgents in Colombia’s 40-year civil war. In practice, being tagged ‘terrorist’ is giving Colombia’s army and paramilitary forces a green light to arrest, detain and use force against citizens of Colombia who are not insurgents, but government critics. Paramilitaries are also seizing land.
I look at these two at the kitchen table of my North London home. Danilo is a quiet, handsome man with glasses and a serene smile. Abilio is younger – more angry. They tell me how President Uribe has personally accused Justicia y Paz – the church-based human rights organization for which they work – of having been infiltrated by terrorists. In addition, Uribe has labelled the peace community that they helped set up – CAVIDA (which stands for community of life, dignity and self-determination) – as a ‘concentration camp’ run by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Danilo and Abilio have been a thorn in President Uribe’s side since his days as Governor of the province of Antioquia, when the two argued against Uribe’s civilian-military co-operation programmes. CAVIDA – located just outside Antioquia’s border – is one of the only communities to survive these programmes.
Abilio scrubs the dinner dishes as he explains to me how CAVIDA began. It happened one February morning in 1997. At 3.00am paramilitaries together with Colombia’s 17th Army Brigade marched into a village, rounded up the community and told them they were searching for terrorists. One of the young villagers was ordered to climb up a coconut tree. When he came down the soldiers slashed off his hands. As he ran around screaming, they cut off his head. Laughing, one of the soldiers picked the head up and began to play football with it. The other villagers fled in terror.
For the next three years, the community – seeking protection – lived like sardines packed into the football stadium in the nearby town of Turbo. Then with the help of Abilio and Danilo, the Government returned 41,000 hectares of the land from which the villagers had fled and promised to provide CAVIDA with civilian – instead of military – protection. At last it looked like the community could live again in peace.
But since President Uribe came to power 18 months ago, CAVIDA has been refused the civilian protection that was promised. Paramilitaries and the army are harassing the community again, burning its rice fields and instigating an economic blockade to prevent the CAVIDA community from selling its goods.
After being tipped off that warrants for their arrest had been issued, Danilo and Abilio left Colombia. As Father Javier Giraldo, the founder of Justicia y Paz, told me: ‘To resist arrest may sound a little heroic, but when the justice system has failed on almost every count to punish the military officers involved in massacres and to enforce protective measures for us [citizens], how can we trust it?’
Passing his washing gloves over to Danilo, Abilio goes to the hall to phone his wife and four-year-old girl. He returns invigorated and singing: ‘My daughter is learning to dance!’ Danilo makes no calls: his longer marriage to the dangerous life of Colombian human rights has left romance and family relations at a distance.
Through Washington, Geneva and now, here in London, Abilio and Danilo are taking their ‘world tour’ – the term that they like to use for their forced departure from their homeland. They are meeting politicians and UN officials to explain their persecution at the hands of the Colombian Government. Says Abilio: ‘It is a perverse logic because the people they should be arresting are the military officers who work with the paramilitaries, not us.’
The Colombian Government’s campaign to discredit them follows them every step of the way. Indeed, Embassy officials in London have been telephoning their hosts to ask: ‘Do you know you are working with subversives?’ Nevertheless, the warmth and admiration they receive from those that they meet is fuelling their hopes. ‘Even in Geneva, the highest corridors of European power, they seemed to want to know our story,’ says Abilio enthusiastically. ‘If they have listened we have gained something.’
Danilo Rueda & Abilo Peña talked with Amaranta Wright