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An urgent call at midnight

When a mass murder befalls a peace community in Colombia, the remaining members watch as soldiers pose for photos, holding up victory signs in front of the bodies.

Erika Zarate is a Canadian who volunteered with Peace Brigades International in Colombia from 2004 to 2005. This is her account of one experience she had as a PBI volunteer that she will never forget.

At midnight on Feb. 22, 2005 Jesús, a member of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community, made an urgent call to the PBI house in Turbo, Colombia. He told us that eight members of his community had disappeared, including the leader Luís Eduardo Guerra, and that the community feared for his safety.

Jesús asked us for international accompaniment for a commission to search for the disappeared persons.

Robert, a PBI volunteer from Spain, three other international persons including Elkin (a Colombian lawyer) and I went to the Peace Community in order to accompany one hundred men and women search for their friends and family members.

The commission left at 4:00 a.m. on Feb. 24, heading for the home of Alfonso Bolívar, one of the most active members of the Peace Community.

The way to his farmhouse was steep and muddy. After seven hours on foot, we finally arrived.

Soldiers and police surrounded us, and Robert explained to them that we were international workers accompanying a civilian commission and that our team had personally informed the Vice President of Colombia, the General of the XVII Brigade as well as many embassies and UN bodies of our presence there.

The military official in charge told his troops to lower their weapons and to let the commission pass.

When we arrived we found ourselves contemplating a horrendous scene: a humble family home with blood splashed all over the entrance to the house, empty cartridges on the ground and the severed hand of a small girl sticking out from a pile of rotten cacao fruit shells.

A painful silence overcame us.

I called the PBI team in Turbo and gave the exact location of the farm so that the forensic team from the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman could find us.

Its helicopter landed hours later and the authorities and scientists began to work immediately. The forensic process was observed by the Colombian lawyer, several leaders from the community and three PBI volunteers.

The investigators found three adults and two small children in a mass grave.

The adults displayed torture marks made with a machete. All five had been beheaded. The victims of the massacre were Bolívar; his partner, Sandra Muñoz; their two children, Natalia (six) and Santiago (two); and a farm worker, Alejandro Pérez.

When the helicopter arrived to collect the forensic team and the plastic bags that contained the human remains, the commission prepared to continue the search, heading towards the house of Luís Eduardo Guerra and his family.

As we were about to leave, it was a painful shock to see the soldiers taking photos in front of the bags that contained the bodies, making signs of victory with their fingers.

After about five more hours of walking, and without any sign of the disappeared persons, we decided to camp on an abandoned farm until the following morning.

The next day, I was at the front of the commission and after following the river for a long time I stumbled across the severed head of Deiner, a playful but timid boy of ten with whom I had shared sweets and free time on previous occasions.

We all continued up river in a state of numbness until we found the bodies of Guerra, his partner Beyanira Guzmán and the rest of the remains of their son Deiner.

While waiting for the forensic team, we took turns scaring away the crows and hogs that tried to eat the corpses. We waited until nightfall, but when we realized that nobody from the team of the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman was going to arrive, one part of the commission, accompanied by us, returned to San José de Apartadó.

We left behind a group of 25 members of the community and the human rights lawyer to guard the last victims of the massacre.

The return to Turbo was dizzying.

PBI had mobilized an urgent action and members of all the PBI teams in Colombia were busy sending e-mails, making telephone calls, and meeting with everyone with the responsibility for responding to the massacre. At the same time PBI Country Groups around the world were working with their support networks and governments.

PBI sent me to Bogatá to promote the protection of the peace community and to demand a transparent investigation into the massacre. To that end, I met with dozens of UN representatives, diplomats from various countries and high-level civilian authorities.

Peace Brigades International continues to accompany the leaders of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community, a pioneer and model community, who continue to defend their principles of non-violence, justice, solidarity, freedom, dialogue and respect.