Colombia War Reparations, One Village Demands Justice

The Afro-Caribbean village of El Paraíso is seeking reparations as it tries to put itself back together after decades of being caught in crossfire of Colombia's civil war.

El Paraíso, a sleepy village that has suffered
El Paraíso, a sleepy village that has suffered
Germán Gómez Polo

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."

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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