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RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: ‘We Are Afraid to Speak Out in Public, to Show Our Faces’

Constanza Vieira

MURINDO, Colombia, Jul 21 2004 (IPS) - ”We would like to be here standing in front of all of you so people could know, through our voices, what is happening to us. But we are afraid of speaking out in public and of showing our faces,” said a statement read out in the sweltering jungle heat in a war zone in northwestern Colombia.

”We would like to be here standing in front of all of you so people could know, through our voices, what is happening to us. But we are afraid of speaking out in public and of showing our faces,” said a statement read out in the sweltering jungle heat in a war zone in northwestern Colombia.

”That is why we are speaking through the committee, which represents the entire suffering population of Murindó,” a campesino (peasant farmer) read out before the local residents and international delegates gathered at the school in the town of Murindó, on the banks of the Atrato River.

IPS was the only media outlet to make the long trek to the ‘First Forum for Life and Peace in Murindó’, held on Friday, Jul. 16 in the middle of the jungle in the province of Chocó.

To draw attention to the suffering of civilians in this civil war-torn area, an international delegation, escorted on either side by two boats sent by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a boat sent by the France-based Medecins du Monde/Doctors of the World, travelled up the Murindó River in one of the large water taxis known locally as pangas.

At 6:30 AM last Friday, the convoy of boats picked up more than 100 campesinos – men, women and children – carrying white flags made out of school notebook paper, in the town of Murindó Viejo, to take them to the school in Murindó, the district seat, where the forum was held.


The delegation included representatives of Christian Aid, from Britain, the European Network of Solidarity with Colombia, and European and U.S. activists who form part of peace brigades that act as unarmed escorts to protect human rights lawyers, who have received death threats.

The statement read out by the campesino was the main event at the forum, which was organised by the ‘Committee of Everyone United for Murindó’, and convened by the Integral Campesino Association of Atrato (ACIA) — which represents the black campesino population – local indigenous governing councils, the Roman Catholic Church diocese in Quibdó (the capital of the province of Chocó), community groups and municipal authorities led by the mayor.

”For more than seven years we have been experiencing a constant state of forced displacement and ‘re-displacement’ caused by the violence,” said the campesino, in the name of five communities along the Murindó and Jiguamiandó rivers.

”Since the police established a strong presence in Murindó (five months ago), we have been suffering an intense food blockade. They do not allow us to bring enough food for the 3,630 campesinos living in the surrounding countryside,” he said.

The checkpoints even block the transport of milk and other food sent by government child malnutrition programmes.

”For a community suffering from hunger, it is not fair to keep out food provisions on the lie that they are for the guerrillas,” the statement added.

The communique from the local campesinos complained that the security forces refuse to recognise that the rural communities have expressed their neutrality and ”autonomy with respect to all of the armed actors” involved in Colombia’s four-decade conflict.

The main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has controlled this area along the Atrato River since 1970, where the police and military were forced to stay away for 33 years.

But in the early 1990s the right-wing paramilitaries – allied with the armed forces, according to reports by global human rights watchdogs and the United Nations – arrived in the area, and began to fight with FARC for territorial control.

The paramilitary front active in this area is not taking part in the negotiations that began in May with the conservative government of Alvaro Uribe for the demobilisation of the paramilitary militias, many of which are led by drug traffickers.

According to Catholic Church authorities in Quibdó, ACIA and Orewá – a regional organisation of Emberá and Wounaan indigenous groups – the provisions of the paramilitaries are not blocked at the police and military checkpoints.

But ”the supplies of gasoline that we need to cut down timber, to run our diesel plants, and for transportation are controlled, which makes it difficult or impossible to transport sick people or others along the rivers,” the campesino read.

Fuel is essential in this road-less impenetrable jungle region, where transportation depends on rivers. Towns and villages have electricity for only a few hours a day, obtained from diesel plants.

”When we come to the town, (the police) stop and question us, and tell us we’re guerrillas or guerrilla supporters,” or make us turn back even before we reach town, after we have walked or travelled by river for hours to get there, he added. Some people are beaten and banned from coming back to town, ”and risk their lives if they do so.”

”Nor do they allow us to use our normal routes for getting to town,” and ”we have to go through impassable swamps,” he said.

The police also warn the campesinos that if the insurgents try to make an incursion into Murindó, ”it will be us who will pay the price.”

”They have openly stated that this land is theirs, and that if we don’t leave willingly, we’ll leave the hard way, when the paramilitaries return,” said the statement.

In several operations, the police and army have brought ”a person who openly admits to being a paramilitary…to single out campesinos in the villages,” it added.

In March, the army carried out an operation that lasted several days, raiding homes in three villages without court orders or supervision.

Cows and chickens were stolen, along with tools, cooking utensils, and TV sets and radios donated to the villages by local authorities.

”They detained campesinos, who were made to stand in the sun for many hours,” to show them to the informers who were accompanying the soldiers, said the statement.

”Children are also used, pressured psychologically to get them to inform on the guerrillas,” it added.

The five young daughters of the campesino who read out the statement as well as around 300 other children have been out of school for nearly a year, because teachers are too afraid to work in a combat zone.

Nor are medicines allowed past the checkpoints. ”Only on occasions do health brigades arrive” from Doctors of the World, said the text.

The man who read the statement said he was personally beaten and threatened by local police chief José María Losada, who told him not to come back to Murindó.

”Yes, I am afraid that I spoke here today,” he responded to a question from IPS.

Losada asked him to stop by his house, beat him, and said ”Now get out of here, go and try to report this, because I know where your family is. Get out of here, you son-of-a-b**ch dog, he told me,” said the campesino who will remain anonymous for security reasons.

”I believe the state does not like people who try to bring progress to our community and better our people,” said the campesino, who for the past eight years has been re-elected as leader of his community. He is also a volunteer health promoter.

Why was the communique read out by someone who has been threatened by the local police? With a flush of pride, he told IPS that his fellow community members, nearly 40 percent of whom are illiterate, chose him because ”I’m schooled.”

”I went to primary school for only a year and a half, but I really liked reading. I learned how to read from seeing newspapers, and sounding out the letters,” he said.

He and his family have been displaced three times. His wife lost seven relatives in a massacre by the paramilitaries. Seven years ago they were forced to leave an area along the banks of the Curbaradó River, north of Murindó, where landowners and agribusiness interests sought to gain control over land to expand their plantations of oil palms.

”There were 14 communities in the Curbaradó basin, but today none of us are there anymore,” he said. The paramilitaries would seize people ”and kill them with chainsaws or hatchets, cut off their heads, cut open their stomachs, pull out the intestines and stuff their heads inside their stomachs.”

”Why did they kill us? We understood that the terror was aimed at all of us, not just the guerrillas, but at us, the civilian population,” he said.

The message to the survivors was ”Leave, because this is our land now.”

The repeated forced displacements led the campesinos to coin a new word: ”re-displacement”. Colombia has three million internal refugees, one of the largest displaced populations in the world.

Despite the organisers’ warnings that the police could stop the convoy of boats and search each and every person, the participants in the forum were not bothered at the police checkpoint along the river, either on the way there or on the way back.

But during the meeting, the local police chief, Losada, suddenly showed up, armed, and took the microphone.

”I was given the most unpleasant job, which was setting up a police presence in the town, coming to talk to you, (although not everyone looks on us kindly), and working in the midst of the fear, which still exists, because of all the threats,” he said.

The police have no ties with ”any illegal armed group,” he said – an allusion to the paramilitaries – adding that the police do not punish, but are ”a force of aid and reconciliation.”

Only representatives of organisations and institutions spoke at the forum, because the ”ordinary people” did not dare take the microphone.

”It’s a pity that people didn’t dare talk. They didn’t say everything that there is to say, but it was a step forward, because for them to see that we are united was important. We’ll have to organise more forums,” a member of the ‘Committee of Everyone United for Murindó’ remarked to IPS.

On Monday Jul. 19, six outsiders came to the town in a small motorboat. One was recognised by local residents as a paramilitary fighter known as ‘Moña’. They stayed two hours, had some drinks, said they were interested in buying land in Murindó Viejo, and left at 15:30.

”The police didn’t react. They acted as if nothing was happening,” said a source whose identity will be kept in reserve by IPS.

 
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RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: ‘We Are Afraid to Speak Out in Public, to Show Our Faces’

Constanza Vieira

MURINDO, Colombia, Jul 21 2004 (IPS) - ”We would like to be here standing in front of all of you so people could know, through our voices, what is happening to us. But we are afraid of speaking out in public and of showing our faces,” said a statement read out in the sweltering jungle heat in a war zone in northwestern Colombia.
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