Heavy combat immediately ensued on the hill immediately adjacent to the village I live in, including shots from rifles, AK-47s, M-60s and occasional grenades. The combat on the “Hill of the Cross” between guerrilla and military forces continued for the next twenty minutes as I and my teammate scurried around making contact with community leaders, our team in Bogotá and Colombian military officials. While most of the gunfire and combat came from the far side of the hill, enough shots were fired from the side facing our house to induce wincing.
My teammates and I live in and accompany the San José Peace Community found in Urabá in Northwest Colombia. In 1997 the community claimed their territory as a neutral civilian community and refused to cooperate with any armed group of any form (including military or police). The community has since survived threats, killings, massacres, disappearances, and food blockades. Despite violent pressure from armed groups, the people of the Peace Community remain committed to building a non-violent community in resistance and as an alternative to the violence that surrounds them. As a measure of security, the Peace Community invited international accompaniers, including our Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) team, to live within the community as witnesses and to provide political deterrence to the violence.
While I did not expect to be woken up by the war on this particular morning, the combat was not unexpected. For a while now the Colombian military has had an encampment on the other side of the Hill of the Cross. For the past four months the nearby military encampment has come up in conversations with peace community members, always accompanied by a worried prophesy that such a close guerrilla target would eventually bring combat and risk to the village. It was only three months ago that for these very reasons the community removed a trench the military had built very near the community on the Hill of the Cross. Thankfully, no community members were hurt in the combat, but it’s scary to think how much worse it could have been had the community not removed that trench.
The crazy part of this story though, is not that there was combat (we live in a war zone); it’s the news stories that came out the day after. Various regional radio stations reported the following: “In the military’s efforts to protect the peace community from ‘the terrorists’ a soldier was killed when he stepped on a mine near the peace community.” Considering neither FOR, the peace community, or the guerrilla contacted the radio stations, the military–as the only other party witness to the combat–was the main, if not only, source of these news stories. The military’s report of the incident via the radio stations completely twists the truth of what happened to support three common discourses of the Colombian state.
First, these news stories paint a picture of the peace community and civil society as targeted by the guerrilla with the military as their selfless saviors. The military would have everyone believe that had it not been for their presence, the guerrilla would have attacked the peace community. In reality it was the military encampment that drew the guerrilla attack that put us all at risk.
Second, the military seeks to portray itself as the protector of the peace community, while insinuating that the peace community is somehow responsible for the death of a soldier. Given the history of the government’s efforts to politically slander the peace community as being manipulated by the guerrilla, stating in radio broadcasts that a landmine exploded near the community purposely implies to local residents that peace community members were involved in placing the mine.
Lastly, by failing to mention the combat or a guerrilla attack these news stories reflect the military’s desire to prove to Colombia and the international community that the war is over, guerrilla forces have been defeated, and the massive militarization of civil society in Colombia has worked. During the combat we called an official of the Colombian military to remind him of our presence. As we were worrying about stray bullets, this official tried to placate us by saying that we shouldn’t worry because the combat was happening for our safety and posed no risk to us.
A day after the combat, we asked another military official for their report of what happened. After checking with a superior for what information he could release he reported, “There was an inconvenience with an armed group. But there’s nothing to be worried about. There were no deaths or injuries.” The military reported no deaths although it had already stated on several radio stations that a soldier had been killed after stepping on a mine. This clearly shows the Colombian military’s willingness to give false information to the international community to maintain their image as successful saviors.
When I talked to some of my neighbors in the peace community about the news stories they responded with anger and frustration, but not with surprise. One of my neighbors in response to me venting about these blatant lies shrugged, “Well, that’s what they always do.” The news stories fit with the discourse the military and state has used for the past several years nationally: that the military’s presence means security for the civilian population while at the same time accusing that civilian population (and especially human rights defenders) of being aligned with the guerrilla. At the same time, it repeats the message that their work has succeeded in ending the war.
Accusations and misinformation broadcast through mass media causes unmeasurable damage to the peace community and other human rights defenders. Spin has become the new weaponry of the Colombian state to do away with those they stigmatize as the enemy. As one of my neighbors commented, “The radio is the military’s biggest rifle.”
Isaac Beachy is a U.S. citizen and peace activist who has worked as an accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) for ten months and a contributor to the Americas Program www.americas.org
For More Information:
Fellowship of Reconciliation www.forusa.org
San José de Apartadó Peace Community website www.cdpsanjose.org