He says it’s been four times. Then he thinks about it and says takes it back, he says that it’s been five times. Pedro does not remember very well the number of occasions that the war has forced him to move from Peña Azul, a rural settlement on the banks of the Baudó river, in the Chocó department of Colombia, surrounded by jungle, always wrapped in rain and always nailed to the mud. Like everyone in this place, he speaks in a low voice, does not say much, but by bits he manages to tell what happened in his town last March 3: which caused him and other 526 people to leave the area in stampede from one moment to another.
The history of the war in Colombia has been for many decades, unfortunately, a history of versions. Just as well, the story of what happened just twelve days ago in Peña Azul and other surrounding communities is also a story of versions.
What happened – says another displaced person with whom I spoke – was that some paramilitaries arrived with their armbands and their rifles to announce with shouts that they were coming to stay. Some others handle a different version: in which before the ‘paras’ [paramilitaries] arrived, strangers had killed a guy and dragged him through the yellow dirt of one of the town’s tracks. And others further explain that what lit the wick was a combat with the ELN [another insurgent organization].
Between the afternoon of that Friday, March 3 and the night of Saturday, the war drew 527 people out of their ranches, of whom 256 are minors. They were taken out, says an intelligence report quoted by ‘El Tiempo’ by the so-called Gaitanista Self-Defenses, commanded by a man nicknamed ‘Furia’ linked to the Úsuga Clan, and a crossfire with the ELN.
But, I repeat, the war displaced them.
A mass displacement in full 2017, in the Colombia of peace.
A week later, on Friday March 10th, I traveled by plane, bus and boat to visit for five days the victims of the displacement of Peña Azul. I arrived to Pie de Pató, municipal head of Alto Baudó, and soon found the temporary shelter where the new displaced people live: a sports center that is one of the few cement buildings of the place.
I was immediately struck by the number of women, children and the elderly. The women cooked and mopped the floor in a vain effort to keep their bodies and minds occupied. From time to time men came in with muddy feet.
A Black Hawk that flew over the village for several minutes finally landed, children running on the ground did not wait for the propellers to stop to approach the helicopter that brought a pair of generals on board. These came to speak to the community. The generals were given coconuts and pineapples, and the uniformed men told the people that they were there to take care of them, but that they could not guarantee this if they did not count with their collaboration. They promised military operations and marine patrols through the river.
Then came the turn of the community. And the speech of its representatives focused on an old and well-known topic: abandonment [on part of the State] and lack of opportunities. At one point, the Mayor of the municipality confronted one of the generals and said: “Here, we have to grow coca because there is nothing else from which we can earn a living. You know that! “. The general looked at her quietly. The woman continued: “There is no way to market the other products here. The coca brought economic satisfaction to the peasant, and also brought violence”. At that moment a voice interrupted to add to these claims: “You not only fumigated the coca, also the household crops”.
When the meeting ended, the people disengaged, first in silence and then looking and laughing until someone dared to say, “The same old promises”. The night passed, some in the hostel or in the homes of relatives that live in the municipality, and others preferred to wander around the village.
During the days that I spent in Pie de Pató, there was no lack of food, neither the medical nor the psychological attention. But that was precisely what made me feel like I was in a tough zone of the conflict. MSF personnel, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the local authority were everywhere in the process to look after the displaced persons. People were nervous, but not at the level I had hoped to find them. It pains me to say it, but I felt that they were, somehow, accustomed to being victims.
They seemed to know by heart the script of the operation before their eyes: soon the journalists would leave, then the doctors, later the aid, and the army would stay for a fortnight more, maximum a month. And in the end: back to the same.
But I did feel that they were anxious to go back to their ranches and get on with their lives. Their problems are abundant, they told me, and the armed conflict is only one of them. There is also poverty and neglect. And – why not? – the concerns of a peasant: his land and his “little animals”.
“I was in the working in the bushes when I saw everyone embarking to leave, I had to leave my hens abandoned” says Liz Esther. Like Pedro, she does not remember if this is the fourth or fifth time she has had to flee her home with just what she has on her. This time she wants the wait to not be too long in order to return, and she does not want to go to the city because, “who will take care of the ranch and the animals?”.
A group of indigenous women share the kitchen. The ‘blacks’ and the ‘cholos’ – that’s how they refer to each other- must collaborate. If they could leave, each one would take a different path, but the war that brought them here and the mountain work that occupies them has united them for these days. They are sitting eating at a table, again, rice with tuna, the same as yesterday. They say they feel lucky that the food is not lacking and that there are no major health problems. But they explain that, perhaps, it is because they have only been in the shelters for just a few days.
“I have the right to be happy. These problems are not my fault, they are society’s … “. Some children sing and repeat what the psychologist of the medical mission of the Governor of Chocó is telling them. Others run to join the choir, but maybe they do not understand what they sing. Several of them are children of people who have already gone through this.
Now, their kids have to go through this.
While navigating through the Baudó River, it is possible to see the disaster that the displacement of the communities leaves: the almost high-pitched emptiness, closed houses, loose animals, the feeling that we live in a country that is indifferent to the blows of violence.
A boy approaches a soldier and grabs his hair: “Are you Rambo?”. Then he runs away. The soldier gives him an intense look. The army members stationed at Pie de Pató are not very close to the population. They patrol the mountain with hard faces, their glances come and go, but don’t relate with the people. It must be the years of war and the awareness that here, in these areas, everything is very mixed: paramilitaries, guerrillas, drug traffickers, poor people, and a half-represented State.
Little by little, people have begun to return. Some do not have the patience to wait until the security guarantees of the Army and the Police are fulfilled. The older ones say that they don’t have time for it. Others, however, have decided to stay here now. The crisis will dissipate and soon it will become an uncertainty, the uncertainty that is so well known to those who live in these lands that seem to belong to another country, to another world.
Gallery, the displacement of people in Pie de Pató, Chocó
All photographs taken by Mauricio Morales