Ghosts of the Past

First in a three-part report on the Chocó region of Colombia.

by Terry Gibbs and Garry Leech

Dissident Voice

September 16, 2003


Looking out over the muddy banks of the Río Atrato, Macaria tells of nightmares of mangled bodies, spiraling flames and the cries of dying children. Trying desperately to grasp the hands that reach out to her through the darkness, she awakens to nothing but silence. Macaria has been working with a UN-sponsored psychologist for months now struggling to come to terms with the tragedy that struck this small Afro-Colombian community over a year ago. Bellavista is a four-hour boat ride down the Río Atrato through military and paramilitary checkpoints. As one approaches the riverbank near this remote town, it is difficult to believe that so much suffering has occurred here. Dugout canoes laden with bananas, pineapples, sugarcane and miscellaneous packages vie for space near the dirt embankment as lively exchanges take place between people calling instructions back and forth. A large poster, which was placed strategically on the riverbank by the army, reads: “On May 2, 2002, the FARC assassinated 119 people here. We will never forget.” A larger than life boy’s face peers out from beside the words. Almost one year after Bellavista’s residents returned to the homes they abandoned following the attack, community members are still trying to process what happened that fateful day.


The tragic events of May 2 began when 400 right-wing paramilitaries made their way up the Río Atrato to Bellavista and neighboring Vigia del Fuerte in the Chocó department. They passed unhindered through an army checkpoint in Ríosucio just a few hours downriver from their destination in guerrilla-controlled territory. When the paramilitaries arrived in Bellavista on April 21, 2002, the acting mayor and a local priest immediately notified the regional and national authorities about the imminent danger faced by the community, but to no avail. Fighting began ten days later on May 1 when leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas attempted to drive the paramilitaries out of Bellavista and Vigia del Fuerte in an offensive that lasted through the night and into the next day. In an attempt to avoid getting caught in the crossfire, hundreds of Bellavista residents fled from a northern barrio to seek refuge in a small church in the town center.


Macaria recounts that tragic day when friends and relatives huddled close to one another trying to remain calm and talking in hushed tones of how things would be once the war was over. Paramilitaries who had set up camp next to the church were the intended target of a FARC cylinder bomb. Crashing through the roof of the church the stray projectile, loaded with shrapnel—metal, cement and nails—tore through bodies and walls. “When we heard the blast I threw myself onto the floor, covered my little girl and stayed there. When I tried to get up I felt that I was suffocating. I looked around and there was the smell of sulfur, something sickening. Everything was dark and full of smoke,” said Macaria.


Unable to walk because of shrapnel wounds to her legs and spine, Macaria lay on the ground staring at the ceiling and walls where various body parts were splayed. She recalls a long night of praying with the other wounded, but when dawn arrived “some of the children started to die. They were asking for help, but I couldn’t help them.” Almost ten percent of the town’s population perished that day.


Carlos Arturo, a UN-sponsored psychologist, moved to Bellavista shortly after May 2 to help survivors in their process of “psychological recuperation.” He says the community has existed in the midst of violence since 1996, but they had never experienced anything of the magnitude of May 2. Arturo describes the horrific fate of a pregnant woman killed in the church: “When the cylinder bomb exploded, they found the fetus stuck against the wall.” It has not been easy for survivors to live with the memory of such gruesome images. Many men in the community lost their entire family in the tragedy and, as a result, some have turned to alcohol in an attempt to dull their pain. But according to Arturo, “When they get drunk they discover their feelings. A man has lost his wife and six kids, so he gets drunk, and in the same moment he weeps, laughs and dances.”


Arturo has witnessed a number of “pathologies” in survivors of the events of May 2, most notably problems with aggressive behavior, especially in children where the level of tolerance is very low. Many survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, experiencing anxiety, fear, sleep disorder and a loss of desire to live. Some women have experienced difficulty having orgasms, while four survivors have committed suicide.


But there have been some success stories. In the case of Macaria, Arturo describes how she “had to sleep every night with the corpses while taking care of her small baby. But now Macaria sees this experience in a positive way, because for every new problem she now says, ‘No, I already had a bigger problem.’” Macaria credits Arturo for always being there for her, especially when her memories come back to haunt her: “There is something that is always there, it’s like a ghost. There are moments that it goes away, but then there are moments when it comes back alive. I have tried to overcome it. When that ghost comes to me I always look for someone to speak to... I don’t like solitude, because solitude prompts that ghost back into my mind.”


For more than a year, 66-year-old Rosalia Lando has suffered dizzy spells and some days finds it difficult to get out of bed. Rosalia was not in the church on May 2; she had remained in her house—a wooden hut on stilts—in the neighborhood of Pueblo Nuevo, situated halfway between the church and the location from which the guerrillas launched their cylinder bombs. Two of the rebels’ projectiles fell woefully short of their paramilitary target and landed on houses in Pueblo Nuevo. Rosalia’s home was severely damaged when one of the errant bombs destroyed a neighbor’s house. She lay trapped under collapsed walls until her son, sensing something might have happened to his mother, swam across the Río Atrato from Vigia del Fuerte to find her. According to Rosalia, “He started pulling boards. He pulled and pulled until he managed to loosen me up. And then he put me on a boat.”


Apart from a small group of “resistentes” who remained in the community following the tragedy, most of Bellavista’s 1,400 residents fled four hours upriver to the departmental capital Quibdó. Four months later, 600 returned to begin rebuilding their lives. Arturo claims that some community members, already traumatized by the tragedy and their displacement ordeal, returned to find soldiers had looted their homes. The army has also been criticized for failing to protect the community after being warned about the paramilitary incursion ten days before the fighting began.


Bellavista’s acting mayor, Manuel Corrales, describes the arrival of the paramilitaries: “They said they weren’t there to attack us, that they weren’t going to kill anyone like before when they chopped off heads and cut open torsos. That they were here to confront the guerrillas and to get them out of the community.” Knowing the local population would inevitably be caught in the middle of a battle between the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, Corrales says he notified regional and national authorities of the impending danger to the community, but “the government, the state and the public forces didn’t do anything.”


Government troops didn’t arrive in Bellavista until six days after the fighting had ended, despite the fact that the army’s 12th Infantry Battalion, Fourth Brigade, is based only four hours upriver in Quibdó. Furthermore, paramilitaries remained in the town for another two weeks after the army arrived. A report issued by the UN human rights envoy to Colombia, Anders Kompass, who visited Bellavista a week after the attack, criticized the army for ignoring the continued paramilitary presence in the town. Corrales corroborated the UN report claiming that after the church bombing the “paramilitaries remained here for about 20 days. Then some paramilitary boats showed up and took them all away, including the injured.”


While Corrales is critical of the army’s lack of response to the paramilitary incursion, the mayor holds the FARC primarily responsible for the tragedy, “It’s clear that those cylinders are not accurate. They knew that they were putting the population in danger. The people are convinced that they knew the people were in the church.” In the end, a combination of state neglect, army indifference, paramilitary instigation, and guerrilla recklessness all contributed to the tragedy.


In July 2003, Colombian investigators from the office of the procuraduría formulated charges against three high ranking army officers—Major General Leonel Gómez, commander of the First Division; Brigadier General Mario Montoya, commander of the Fourth Brigade; and Lt. Colonel Orlando Pulido, commander of the 12th Infantry Battalion—for their role in contributing to the deaths of more than 100 people by failing to effectively protect the civilian population. However, only the attorney general can officially issue criminal charges against the officers. Lt. Colonel Pulido, whose 12th Infantry Battalion was directly responsible for security in the Middle Atrato region including Bellavista, has a history of collaboration with paramilitaries. Earlier this year, he was charged with ordering the massacre of five civilians suspected of being guerrilla collaborators in 1998. A combined army/paramilitary death squad carried out the killings.


The National Police returned to Bellavista and Vigia del Fuerte in early 2003 after having been pulled out by the government following a guerrilla attack in March 2000. In that assault, FARC cylinder bombs destroyed the police station, church and several houses in Vigia del Fuerte killing 21 police officers and six civilians, including the mayor. During the same offensive, rebel projectiles also killed three police officers in Bellavista. The departure of the police had left the local population feeling abandoned as the FARC became de-facto rulers of the region until the paramilitary incursion that led to the May 2 tragedy. While the heavy army and police presence now provides the residents of Bellavista and Vigia del Fuerte with improved protection against the armed groups, surrounding rural communities still feel threatened.


As one resident of nearby San Miguel, a small village 30 minutes upriver from Bellavista, points out, “The rural population is still the most vulnerable. In these areas you can be attacked at any moment.” The fears of rural villagers are echoed by William Salazar, regional representative of the government’s human rights office, Defensoria del Pueblo, “There’s only protection within the town limits in Bellavista and Vigia... the army does not guarantee security of their farms and land. So sometimes it’s more complicated for the community to have the army here than if it were not here, because there is pressure from one side and then from the other.”


The people of San Miguel were also displaced following the events of May 2, 2002, but returned four months later despite the fact that fear of the armed groups is still a daily reality. Community members noted that it used to be the guerrillas that were the concern, but now one is just as likely to encounter paramilitaries. The commander of the army troops stationed in Bellavista and Vigia del Fuerte, Captain Javier Pastran, claims that the army controls the river with military boats “constantly patrolling between here and Quibdó.” During these writers’ six days on the Río Atrato, we never once saw a military boat patrolling the river. We did, however, encounter a paramilitary checkpoint one-hour upriver from Bellavista, which illustrated the safety concerns of rural communities like San Miguel.


Meanwhile, with the conflict never far away, Bellavista’s residents struggle to lay the ghosts of May 2 to rest. Memories are constantly awakened by the army’s strategy of firing their weapons into the air at night to intimidate any armed groups lurking outside of town. The problem with this tactic, according to Arturo, is that it also terrorizes the civilian population. He has spoken with the local army commander about the nighttime shootings, but to no avail.


In neighboring Vigia del Fuerte, where five people were killed during the fighting, two younger members of the community have found their own way of coming to terms with the violence that permeates their lives. Rap music produced by 22-year-old Yatuman and 21-year-old Rokaman emanates from a one-room wooden shack that serves as the community’s barber shop. The two barbers have formed a duo called “The Black Power” and their songs reflect both the usual youth angst and the hardships of growing up in conflict-ridden Chocó. In a song titled “No More Violence” they describe the events of May 2:


most sought refuge in the church

the mortal church

when a missile was launched

and on the church it fell

in this peaceful place, many people died

and all who died were innocent

having nothing to do with this problem


no more violence, no no

i don’t wanna hear of it in my region, no no


because of the violence

many will die

if we were all brothers

we wouldn’t commit these sins

because of this our country is out of control


Meanwhile, in Bellavista, Macaria describes how she is determined to continue confronting her own demons: “I’m fighting for my family, I think it’s worth it. That’s why I’m fighting against this ghost.” But realizing that she is likely scarred for life, she knows it will not be easy: “How should one feel when one wakes up from a nightmare to find three-hundred and something pieces of body parts stuck all over the place? On the wall, on the ceiling, and on top of you.” Watching her husband limp past us as we sit on the riverbank, Macaria explains how a friend accidentally shot him in the leg leaving him disabled. With a shrug of her shoulders, she matter-of-factly states, “If it’s not one thing then it’s another.”


Terry Gibbs is the director of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). Garry Leech is the editor of Colombia Journal, where this article first appeared (http://www.colombiajournal.org), and author of Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention


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