Killings End Commune's Innocence


They came looking for paradise in the Andes but found disillusionment and death.

For Jenny James and the little band of starry-eyed followers who arrived in Colombia in 1989 from a commune in Ireland, the verdant mountains of the southern part of the country seemed perfect--so much so that they abandoned their original plan to settle in Bolivia, to the south.

James, then 46, found a revolutionary fervor that appealed to her in the hinterlands of Colombia, where guerrillas have waged a war against the government since the 1960s under the banners of agrarian reform and justice for the poor. Her own leftist activism was born of the social revolt of the '60s.

"I was impressed by the people's high level of political consciousness," she recalled in an interview on a farm in Pacho, 30 miles from Bogota, Colombia's capital.

James had begun her search for a new life with "primal scream" therapy in her native England and ran a commune at Burtonport in Ireland's County Donegal before coming to Colombia.

Pursuing free love and back-to-the-roots living, her Atlantis commune bought land in the rebel-controlled mountains of Tolima state. Reaching the commune near the town of Icononzo, 50 miles southwest of Bogota, required hours of walking and sometimes a machete to clear overgrown paths.

James and the others, including Ann Barr, a commune member from County Donegal who earns cash for the group as an astrologer to Bogota's well-to-do, lived in simple wooden houses and tended vegetable plots some 6,600 feet above sea level.

The commune members freely exchanged sexual partners and reared several children with no formal education but a love for art and nature.

To many, life seemed idyllic. At its height in the mid-1990s, the group had about 60 residents.

But Atlantis' peaceful illusions were shattered by the slayings of two of its teenagers--one of them James' own grandson--allegedly by leftist guerrillas. The killings happened last July, but details only recently emerged.

James described how the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC from the Spanish abbreviation of its name, turned against her group--and she against them.

For 10 years relations were harmonious, she said. Then, two years ago, the rebels abruptly expelled a group of about a dozen Atlantis members that had branched out onto lands in Caqueta province, about 190 miles south of Bogota.

The FARC never explained its action, but James believes the group's mistrust of foreigners was growing as the United States increased military aid to Colombia to help counter the rebels.

The guerrillas had become "like a domesticated wild animal," she said. "We lived close to them for several years, but you never know when they are going to take a swipe at you."

Relations between the Atlantis commune and the FARC worsened.

In mid-1999, FARC rebels expelled Atlantis' nearly two dozen remaining members from Icononzo, its original base. James fled with her closest kin, 15-year-old daughter Katie and 19-year-old grandson Tristan, to a farm in Pacho where a friend raises honeybees.

While at Pacho, Tristan got an itch to see Ireland, which he'd left as a young boy. Before making the trip, however, he went back to Icononzo to say goodbye to a half brother living in the town.

The youth, tall and blond with a talent for acting and juggling, never returned. Nor did his traveling companion, 19-year-old Javier Nova, a child of one of the handful of Colombians belonging to Atlantis.

James said witnesses told of seeing drunken rebels take the youths away. The two reportedly were "tried" and convicted of collaborating with right-wing paramilitary groups. They were then killed with machetes and their bodies burned, James said.

Police said they had conducted preliminary investigations into the youths' "disappearances." The case has not been classified as murder because no corpses have been found.

A spokesman for the British Embassy, Johnny Welsh, said the Atlantis commune called the diplomatic mission and denounced the FARC but "prefer[s] not to deal with the establishment" and didn't ask for diplomatic assistance.

The FARC did not respond to repeated efforts by journalists to obtain their version of events.

The dozen Atlantis members who remain in Colombia insist they will stay in the country. James is trying to pick up the pieces of Atlantis' broken dream, but the whole episode has shaken her faith in nonviolence.

"In the 1960s, everything was very clear to me," she said. "I don't know how to be a pacifist anymore."


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