EL PARAÍSO — It's only 20 kilometers from San Jacinto, in the northern department of Bolívar, to the village of El Paraíso. But they can feel like the longest 20 kilometers in the world.
A few drops of rain and the single dusty track becomes almost impossible to navigate in a motor vehicle. Even on a motorcycle, the best option, the drive takes an hour. By car, it can be twice that. And yet, as difficult as the road may be, it's the only way into this tiny Caribbean community, with its 312 Afro-descendent families and its air of magical realism.
In the mid-1980s, Colombia's decades-long armed conflict forced its way to El Paraíso, turning the village — which means "paradise" in Spanish — into anything but. Residents along the hamlet's unpaved streets recall some of the armed gangs that paraded through: the Quintín Lame Armed Movement, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), and the Socialist Renovation Current or People's Revolutionary Army, a splinter group of the ELN (National Liberation Army), the country's second-largest guerrilla force after the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Then the FARC itself came, along with right-wing paramilitary groups like the Heroes of the Montes de María Block, all of them competing for control of the area.
As with so many communities in the country, the people of El Paraíso — everyday folks who had no interest in fighting — found themselves in the crossfire and dodging bullets.
In 1993, Colombia enacted Law 70 to recognize and safeguard the rights, cultural traditions, territories and developmental perspectives of black and Afro-Caribbean communities. The government issued norms to register territorial councils for these communities, but fighting impeded the people here and in other nearby towns from taking advantage of those rules until 2008. Local fighters made it clear: community representatives were not to convene.
The people of El Paraíso found themselves in the crossfire and dodging bullets.
El Paraíso was thus confined, and the community's survival threatened. Amílcar Rocha González, the communal council's attorney, says that in the 1980s the sound of beating drums meant it was time to convene, and a bullhorn was blown when cattle or pigs were to be killed. "When illegal elements arrived, we stopped using the drum and instead started using picós [a Caribbean sound system or juke box]," he says. "It had to be on all day and night, to know the village was at peace. When an armed group came, the picós were turned off and anyone outside the village knew they mustn't come back in."
The situation worsened when fighters began restricting food supplies to the village. Drivers who dared to try and pass through were murdered and left beside their vehicles by the roadside. The Colombian military bombed these lands when fighting the FARC, leaving the land uncultivable. The two sides also laid landmines, turning this paradise into a kind of hell. The only alternative, then, was to leave, which is exactly what people did: Roughly 90% of locals are estimated to have fled conditions of extreme violence.
Today, almost 10 years after the armed groups finally vacated these territories, the community is hoping to receive reparation funds being offered by the state. On Dec. 4, community leaders met with government officials in San Jacinto to discuss the possibility. Their hope is to obtain collective land titles and thus increase the 525 hectares they gathered piecemeal between 2009 and 2014 using ancestral titles to purchase neighboring plots. They want to reestablish their community, in other words — perhaps even pave the road to El Paraíso so that community members can sell their crops: yams, yucca and avocados.
The two sides also laid landmines, turning this paradise into a kind of hell.
"This road is no good," says Francisco Serna, one of the council members. "All the farming we do here is wasted."
Raquel Cotta, head of collective reparations for the Bolívar department, says there were indeed grave human violations committed in El Paraíso. That recognition is an important starting point in the reparations process. From here, community leaders will work with authorities to further identify those violations and determine the mechanics of compensation. Money for a new road, however, must come from the central government.
Resident Francisco González Pérez hopes the streets of El Paraíso will do honor to its name. "We became part of a conflict that had nothing to do with us," he says. "We as you, God, to give our region and community the change it needs, that we may recover everything we lost in the conflict. And we thank God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost."