MARÍA LA BAJA, Colombia — Ten years ago, a Colombian paramilitary group violently forced the people of Mampuján Viejo from their homes. In June this year, the Justice and Peace Court of the Superior Tribunal of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, ruled that the community must be compensated.
From a vocational high school to a health center and from a sewer system to a community truck, the court ordered various levels of government to strengthen the infrastructure of Mampuján Nuevo, the site where about half the displaced residents of Mampuján Viejo have settled.
The court also allotted $9,000 compensation per person with a $64,000 cap per family, an amount that is being appealed as too low. The money would come from a fund created with money and property seized from paramilitary groups.
The reparations were the first for survivors of paramilitary violence in the armed conflict that has plagued Colombia for more than 50 years. Thousands of people have died and millions have been left homeless as government forces, paramilitary groups and guerrillas vie for power and territory.
The entire community of Mampuján Viejo, along with families from the nearby community of Las Brisas, was displaced on March 10 and 11, 2000, by members of the now-demobilized paramilitary coalition, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The villagers fled when AUC members accused them of cooperating with insurgent guerrillas and threatened to kill them if they didn’t vacate within 24 hours.
In the incident, 12 people were killed in Las Brisas and more than 1,400 civilians, mostly from Mampuján Viejo, were displaced. Initially scattered, about half of the group settled in 2002 in Mampuján Nuevo, small plots of land about eight kilometers away from their old community. The plots were donated by a local Catholic priest.
Since 2007, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has been working with this displaced community, supporting them through trauma healing and advocacy.
To the people of Mampuján Nuevo, receiving reparations is important. Perhaps equally important was the opportunity to speak to the leaders of the paramilitary group at the reparations hearing before the Superior Tribunal.
“We felt like we had been forgotten,” said Arjemiro Joaquin Maza Contreras, a community elder. The hearing brought a lot of attention throughout Colombia and from numerous organizations, showing the community that they were not alone, he said.
At the hearing were former leaders of the AUC unit responsible for the displacement — Édwar Cobos Téllez (alias "Diego Vecino") and Úber Enrique Banquez Martínez (alias "Juancho Dique"). Eight community members from Mampuján Nuevo and nine from Las Brisas traveled there to engage in the proceedings.
People in the two communities participated for the first nine days via videoconference. In Mampuján Nuevo, a large tent was set up with 400 chairs and three video projectors.
Alexander Villarreal Pulido, a Mampuján Nuevo community member and church leader, spoke at the hearing. He spoke of the sickness of war and retaliation in Colombia and the need to work, not just politically, but on a personal level, to break out of that cycle.
“Peace doesn’t come from the president, nor from a political process alone; it starts here,” he said, pointing at his chest. “As a Christian I am required to forgive,” he said. “I know too, that forgiveness doesn’t only affect the forgiven; it’s just as transformative for the one who forgives.”
He ended by declaring his forgiveness, hugging those responsible for his displacement, and giving them Bibles. People listening in Mampuján Nuevo reacted to his words with spirited applause.
The hearing stems out of the judicial process started in 2005 with Law 975, better known as the Justice and Peace Law. The law called for the demobilization of the notorious AUC, which up until then had been on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations. To encourage paramilitary members to demobilize, it offers substantial sentence reductions (an eight-year maximum) provided members give voluntary, in-depth accounts of all related crimes.
In the first few days of the hearing, Cobos Téllez said he does not think the demobilization has been effective, because he believes the majority of the men formerly under his command have rearmed, returned to illegal activities and continue to be a threat in the region. Security continues to be a concern for members of the displaced communities, especially for those who spoke out in the hearing.
Whether or not there is enough money for reparations for everyone is also a concern. The National Reparations Fund, made up of seized assets of paramilitary members, contains only $17.5 million. The settlement offered to survivors of Mampuján Viejo, would consume about 60 percent of that money; yet Mampuján Viejo residents represent less than 1 percent of the paramilitary victims in Colombia.
This spring, the Mampuján community observed the 10-year commemoration of its displacement. The event, which was largely funded by MCC, took place among the dilapidated houses of Mampuján Viejo. Although the village is not occupied, most of its men commute back daily to work the land.
MCC works with Mampuján Nuevo through Sembrandopaz, a local Colombian Mennonite peace and development organization. MCC’s work initially focused on trauma healing, but since 2009, MCC has had a worker placed directly in the community, aiding in the organization of the commemoration and the judicial hearing.
MCC is also helping families interested in returning to live in Mampuján Viejo organize themselves to request support from the Colombian government, various embassies, nongovernmental organizations and possibly Canadian and U.S. churches. To date, 64 families from the community have committed to the project that could enable their voluntary return within three years.