Reclaiming their Voices: One Community’s Struggle to Overcome Fear and Build Peace in Rural Colombia

Alfonso spent most of his youth living in fear. Twenty years ago when he was just an infant, 16 community leaders in his small village of Pijiguay were massacred by a paramilitary group that publicly crushed their skulls with rocks to terrify the villagers. While it sounds shocking this was not unusual. Pijiguay is located in the Montes de Maria region of Colombia, an area which saw some of the worst violence during the country’s 50-year-long civil war.

Montes de Maria
The human cost borne by Colombia’s rural communities as the result of decades of civil conflict is massive. Of more than 200,000 victims of the violence, 177,000 were civilians, most of whom lived in poor rural communities.

For decades, Colombia’s rural communities lived in the traumatic shadow of drug trafficking, and guerilla and paramilitary violence. Millions were forced from their homes. Thousands were intimidated, tortured or massacred. Communities, neighbors and families turned on each other, as no one could be sure who was persecutor and who was friend.

After the massacre, Pijiguay was all but abandoned. Those who stayed behind remained quiet about the murders, doubting that they could trust the government to protect them and terrified of retaliations if they did speak up. They also didn’t trust outsiders, since a common tactic of illegal groups was to call a community meeting, and then kill the leaders who showed up.

residents tell their stories
Residents share their stories on living in the shadow of drug trafficking and guerilla and paramilitary violence.

When Alfonso was 14, things began to change for him and his community. Tired of living in fear and mistrust, Alfonso became involved with the Colombia Responde program. Funded by USAID and implemented by Global Communities, the aim of Responde was to create the conditions necessary to promote sustainable peace and security for displaced communities to return to their homes. Global Communities helped residents become aware of their rights and understand what government support was available to them. Simultaneously, it built the capacity of municipal governments to respond to the needs of communities as they recovered from past violence.

AlfonsoIn a remote village like Pijiguay visitors are rare. Alfonso remembers the first time Colombia Responde staff arrived in Pijiguay as “the day my life changed.” “There was so much mud that their cars were stuck. The staff had on their rubber boots that were sunk deep into the mud. They arrived at 2pm, which was late in the day, and members of the community were too scared to go to the school where the meeting was meant to be held,” recalls Alfonso.

“I asked them why they were here and he told me. I could tell something was different, so I found the community leader and told him to bring everyone. We went door to door to round up people to come to the meeting. They were terrified. We had seen illegal groups call meetings then proceed to use the meetings to kill our leaders. But we managed to pull together the community to start the process,” Alfonso says.

Slowly, over time, trust was built. Initially, the program provided counseling to the residents to help them overcome years of trauma. “It took time and trust-building, but we progressed. One time, we had a meeting at night and I realized that we had overcome the fear. Before, night was the most dangerous time and now we could meet together without fear,” explains Alfonso.

community meeting
Prior to the arrival of Colombia Responde, community members were afraid to meet in public. Village elders, union organizers and church leaders were especially targeted by combatants who viewed anything related to community organizing as suspicious.

With support and training from Colombia Responde, the villagers formed a community development committee to prioritize and address their needs. One of their first projects was to build a road to make access to the community easier. Alfonso joined the committee and soon realized the project was about more than the road that the committee built — it was about finding their voices. “With that training, together, we built a road…but that was not the most important thing. The important thing was the training. The training gave us the self-belief to keep going, and we have overcome the fear of violence Now we have 60 to 70 young people who are community leaders.”

With a new sense of optimism, Alfonso helped create a community radio station. Known as the Voices and Sounds of Montes de Maria, it is the only radio program in Colombia produced and broadcast by local residents themselves. It is a valuable resource for rural communities who are isolated and often lack access to information. In addition to giving residents a platform to discuss important legal topics such as government programs, resettlement and land ownership initiatives, and other concerns of rural farmers, it gives residents a space to share their personal stories, dreams and the histories of their communities. It even received a national journalism award.

“We used to be known for our fear; now we are known for our creativity,” Alfonso says. “Now we can talk where before we could not.”