El Guayabo Will Not Give Up!

El Guayabo Will Not Give Up!
I want to describe the most beautiful place on earth: a place where milk and honey flows, a rural community comprised of approximately 250 families, a place on the banks of the Grand Magdalena River where one breathes peace and harmony, where people share their pain, sorrows, and joys, and where love is reflected in the faces of the people who live there.

A town like this, called El Guayabo, was born from the ashes and grew like a mustard seed that although very small grew into a large, healthy tree. Today, this tree is threatened to be cut and sold as wood to industry. The roots of this community protect the land and life, but this life may now be extinct.

In 1983, 63 families from the community of El Guayabo entered onto the lands that are now in dispute. They began to work the land and settle; roots began to grow in this place. Their children were born in the middle of tranquil farming life. Many of the people of El Guayabo do not know of a better place to live; they were born there, fell in love, got married and had children there. On this land, the river, the sun, the animals, and the crops have shaped their character. This place gave them life and this place will mourn their death.

All their lives they have been working the land, fishing, and walking; and all their lives they have been attacked for defending their land. They were pressured to accept an ideology. People tried to change their minds and wanted them to enter the ranks, but to consider exchanging a machete to work the land with for a rifle to kill seemed preposterous. They resisted and they suffered:

“The guerrillas forced me to attend to them.  These people stayed at our houses 2 or 3 days. My husband was the only person who had a motorized canoe and they forced him to transport them. One day he took some of those people to Badillo and when they arrived, there was a confrontation between the guerrillas and the army.  There was only one wounded guerrilla. That night they arrived very angry screaming that my husband had to take them to Badillo. They took the canoe. We were accused of being guerrilla collaborators.” Flor Pacheco / Bella Union
“At the beginning of the ‘90s, the 23rd front disappeared. The military exterminated them, but  the ELN [National Liberation Army] entered, stalking and intimidating the whole community. Farmers had to account for all money each farmer earned and give them money. They stole cattle. They authorized an armed strike and one could not move anything. There was so much persecution in the village that on December 12, 1993, they killed one person in the village streets. We do not know why. They sent a warning and they did it.” Edinson García Peinado / Guayabo

They were also victims of the enemies of the guerrillas.  It is a war initiated by others but which is always paid by humble and innocent people. The guerrillas arrived in their uniforms at the homes of the community to mistreat them and force them to proclaim themselves as guerrilla collaborators. Community members refused to die labeled as a guerrilla and preferred to withstand attacks, insults, and pain:

“When they came in the morning they didn’t want to see a single leaf in the streets in front of the houses. We’d start to pick the leaves up one by one so that they will not find any on the street. For meetings they forced us to leave our houses. They threatened us with their guns. They were rude to us and fired shots into the air and when they arrived we already knew by the gunfire. When they killed the girl, they gathered us on the river bank, said many profanities, and threatened us saying that anyone who acted like this girl would be killed. They accused the girl of being a guerrilla. They banged their rifles on the doors and threatened the people with things they would do to them if they did not go … the girl was shot with a whole clip from a rifle. They opened her, filled her with stones, and threw her in the river”. Maricela Giménez / Guayabo

The state never did anything for them; no one ever defended them. They created their own defence mechanisms and stood firm against attacks from everyone. Despite all their pain, they found their land to be a place where they could release their sorrow and it is on their land where they found reasons to stay and to not surrender.

The state claims that the violence in Colombia has passed, but the war continues for El Guayabo. They are attacked by the regional government, by the mayor, the police, the attorney general´s office.  All of the authorities give preference to one rich man over 60 farming families who only have the land they are on from which they provide for themselves and for a country where farmers are starving while the fields are full of large machinery and monocrops.

How can I tell you the story where pain, death, and displacement have not been able to transform a community? All you need to do is meet them and you will immediately fall in love with a tenacious and hopeful people. Where do they get their strength? Who or what drives them to fight so hard to resist so bravely? Is it the love of the land which has kept them resisting for more than 30 years? Can you love what you do that much?

In 2012, the community began receiving attacks from Mr. Rodrigo Lopez Henao. These attacks were supported by all regional authorities including the mayor, and the community were victims of 5 clearly illegal attempts of eviction in 2013.

Whether by coincidence or by the power of God, I’m not sure, El Guayabo was fortunate to meet a charismatic leader who with his community of El Garzal and Nueva Esperanza – farmers with similar stories of death and oppression – maintain a struggle for the defense of life and territory. The arrival of Pastor Salvador Alcántara to the community of El Guayabo was a breath of fresh air for them and in his words they found peace and strength to move forward. He spoke of a God who cares for the poor and struggles alongside everyone to defend the lives of their children. And never, no matter what happens, will God leave them.

El Guayabo is surrounded by love and organizations working hard on the ground and in the courts to defend what belongs to the community by law. I cannot imagine what it’s like to work for more than 30 years on my land, and then one day a stranger appears saying “this is mine, everyone leave”, and then comes with armed police prepared to hit and even kill you while he takes away what rightfully belongs to you. But the hardest part is leaving something that is so much a part of you.  Something that if you walk far enough away from, you die. This is the struggle of El Guayabo, a struggle against the powers that be which leaves the community void of life.

This year the police inspector of Vijagual and the Magdalena Medio police evicted the community of El Guayabo as they fought to defend property belonging to Professor Henry, one of the community members of El Guayabo. The community did not retreat far enough away to lose part of their life, but decided to enter the property and declare a humanitarian refuge, setting up an encampment to get the attention of state agencies to answer for the injustices committed day after day against the community.

After the eviction, the men who were hired by Rodrigo to look after the house constantly threatened the community with machetes, guns, insults, and physical abuse. When I was in El Guayabo last week I thought about the situation in which the community was living and my heart was filled with hatred, anger, and revenge. I could breathe the pain of the community in the air. I could feel the sadness on my skin and I could see in their eyes they were tired of the abuse and lies.

The community of El Guayabo, supported by neighboring communities who understand the situation and know what kind of people make up the community of El Guayabo, joined together in an act of solidarity to confront injustice and demand that the men hired by Rodrigo leave the property. It is at this time that I learned that it is possible to turn hatred into hope and that faith and unity can make a difference. As CPT, we are in a difficult situation, but our work is clear: we accompany the community physically and spiritually. We saw with our own eyes the power of hope and how light breaks through darkness.

Now when I think of El Guayabo I see a community that changed hatred, pain, anger, sadness, displacement, abuse, lies, and weapons into love and hope.  That’s why when I walk the streets of El Guayabo I feel nothing but joy and faith and I know that amidst all the challenges that the community has, they are able to resist and turn everything into love, faith and hope.

El Guayabo will not give up!