SAN JOSE DE APARTADO, Colombia — The scene in rural Colombia might have been lifted from a picture postcard. Horses graze in a pasture and children scamper among flowering trees.
But the idyllic image belies the stark realities of life in San Jose de Apartado, a “peace community” in northwestern Colombia dedicated to non-violence where unrest and brutality too often intrude.
The village lies in the heart of a war-zone where paramilitaries have been battling leftist rebels since the 1990s, attacking civilian populations they suspect of collaborating with the guerrillas.
In the two decades up until 2005, more than 170,000 people were killed across Colombia, according to official figures.
Arley Tuberquia, 20, remembers how attacks began in earnest in San Jose de Apartado in 1996, coming to a head when paramilitaries slaughtered six people in February 1997. He was just six.
“Those who had relatives in the city fled there, but there were others who had a lot of children who didn’t know what to do,” Tuberquia told AFP.
Those who stayed regrouped, and in March 1997 dedicated themselves to the creation of a community where violence would have no part, even amidst the unremitting bloodshed.
Rather than shielding the villagers from the unrest, the move sowed distrust and anger on both sides of the conflict. Some 210 people have been killed over the years, including eight in a notorious February 2005 massacre.
Somehow, though, the population of 500 has swelled to 1,300 and the commitment to non-violence has helped make the town a renowned symbol of courage, peace and resilience.
At the entrance to San Jose de Apartado, a sign identifies it as a “community of peace.”
“We don’t participate in war, neither directly nor indirectly,” it says. “We don’t carry weapons. We don’t manipulate or provide information to any of the parties.”
The San Jose cooperative is one of three finalists for the prestigious Sakharov human rights prize, given out each year by the European Parliament. The winner is to be announced this coming Thursday.
In a statement announcing the nominees last month, the European Parliament praised San Jose de Apartado as “an internationally recognized symbol of courage, resilience and dedication to the high values of peace and justice, in an environment of brutality and destruction.”
“In a country plagued by decades of civil war and conflict, this community rejects affiliation to any of the armed groups and demands freedom and liberty for normal people,” the European Parliament wrote.
The collective, led by an eight person elected council, lives from the fruits of its own agricultural labors and from donations received from abroad.
A community cook serves free meals to the collective’s 28 school children, as well as to the town’s 11 elderly residents.
Always in the background, however, there is the fear of a renewed attack, either from leftist rebels or roving paramilitaries.
The nomination of San Jose for the Sakharov prize has been criticized by the group UnoAmerica, which wrote in an open letter to the European Parliament that the community sided in the conflict on the side of leftist rebels.
A member of the Colombian parliament and ardent supporter of the community, Ivan Cepeda, came to its defense, pointing out that the community has been targeted by combatants from both sides, including by leftist fighters responsible for some 20 deaths there.
“It is an example of civil resistance to all types of violence,” said Cepeda, praising the bid by European leaders “to honor its name”.