By Irene Escudero
Pie de Pató, Colombia, Dec 1 (EFE).- In the communities on the banks of the Baudó river, northeast Colombia, fear is always present: the fear of going to work in the fields and getting caught in the crossfire, or the fear of going hunting and stepping on a landmine.
In this remote part of Colombia, the state is not in charge. The Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC, its acronym in Spanish), a former group of the paramilitaries that never demobilized, is in control, instilling a fear in locals.
Like in many other parts of the country, which was ravaged by civil war for two decades, in the town of Alto Baudó, in the department of Chocó, nobody speaks about “them”, the guerillas who control the area and impose the rules – the parallel state.
AGC is written on many walls and doors throughout the town, serving as a reminder for the residents about who is in charge.
Outside the town, where the jungle meets the river, the acronym is missing. This area is disputed, with the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s last major guerrilla group, also laying claim to the territory.
The might of the Colombian state is not felt in the dense jungle, where there are no roads and the only connection to the world is the river. It serves as an important hideout for the armed groups that terrorize local communities, which are mainly made up of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants.
“If those people were not around, we would live very well,” an indigenous leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells Efe.
He speaks openly about the needs of his town: more food to tackle rampant malnutrition and a health center so they don’t have to spend seven hours on the river to reach a hospital when they get sick. But when he mentions who worsens their problems, he lowers his voice.
The indigenous leader says that over a year ago when the two armed groups were fighting over the control of the river and its surroundings, they clashed with gunfire in town.
He and his family managed to take shelter, but he says that the gunmen shot at people indiscriminately, including a man who was returning from feeding his cattle on the outskirts of town and a young man who had been fishing in the river.
Both escaped unharmed, but the fear still haunts them. Ever since, they limit their movements and are watchful wherever they go.
Now, they prefer to avoid going to work at the farms where they harvest bananas, rice, and yucca, or to travel around too much, living in fearful confinement.
According to a UN study published in October, roughly 137,500 people in Colombia live in confinement or with very limited movements, and “Chocó comes top, with more than 70% of cases of people reporting they feel confined and unable to move freely.”
Joselito Baniama, a 44-year-old governor of the Emberá people, native to Chocó, says that they cannot go to work in the yucca fields, they have lost their livestock and everything has been abandoned.
He says that the armed rebels promised not to hurt them, but they are still afraid to leave their homes.They only venture out to gather food nearby when they are not around.
It is an intermittent cycle: some months they have food, others they do not. Their cattle suddenly disappear because they cannot look after the animals.
Locals agree that the worst of the violence has decreased. The AGC, also known as the Gulf Clan, has promised a ceasefire as a gesture of goodwill, while the ELN does not want to publicly engage in any activities that would compromise the resumption of peace talks with the government.
But in the jungle, the sound of gunfire can still be heard, keeping communities in fearful silence. Some do not even dare to raise chickens anymore, afraid that their morning clucking will attract unwanted attention from those in charge.
Life here is one of curfews, silence, distrust, hunger and exhaustion. But in spite of everything, when asked if they plan to leave, the answer is firm: “No, never. If we left, we would have nowhere to plant”. EFE