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Tuesday, March 31, 2015
- Hundreds of Nasa Indians in this rural area of southwestern Colombia have taken shelter in their local health post, perched on a hilltop with a breathtaking view of the Andes mountains, as the gunfire between leftist guerrillas and the army rages below.
Hundreds of Nasa Indians in this rural area of southwestern Colombia have taken shelter in their local health post, perched on a hilltop with a breathtaking view of the Andes mountains, as the gunfire between leftist guerrillas and the army rages below.
The building, where more than 500 indigenous people from the San Francisco reserve, including 150 children, have been holed up for a week, is surrounded by white flags made of sheets, plastic sacks and even a polka-dot scarf, flapping in the wind on tall poles.
At the bottom of the slope, members of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) exchanged fire Monday with army troops located on a hill across the valley. The gunfire continued all day long and into the night.
The health post in the village of Natalá only has two bathrooms. The "kitchen", an improvised shed thrown up on one side of the building, offered potato soup and noodles for lunch when IPS visited.
Milciades Musicué, governor of the San Francisco indigenous reserve, in the department (province) of Cauca, told IPS that some of the refugees sleep inside the health post, "and others outside, and although a few mattresses and blankets have arrived, there aren’t enough to go around."
He said the most recent arrivals have come just to spend the night, "because in our fear, being accompanied here gives us courage and strength."
"This isn’t the whole community. There are 1,200 people in Natalá," said Musicué, while the population of the entire reserve is 6,500.
Saturday evening "we were really scared because at around 5:00 the army opened fire in this direction, and a bullet even hit the health post," he added.
Things calmed down on Sunday, but on Monday the gunfire began again, forcing part of the community to seek refuge elsewhere, because there was no more room in the health post.
By then one child had already fallen ill with hepatitis A, and the staff at the Nasa health post was hard-pressed to keep him isolated in the overcrowded building. On Monday, chickenpox broke out as well.
The rebels have dug themselves in at the bottom of the hill, and their position gives them control over one stretch of the road leading to the nearby city of Toribío.
They have thus made it impossible for the army troops and their tanks to cover the 20 kilometres separating the village of Tierrero, located on the mountain across from Natalá, from Toribío.
The troops have thus been stuck in Tierrero for several days, although official statements claim that the tanks have been making slow progress towards Toribío, which they were supposed to have reached on Wednesday, Apr. 20.
Toribío, a town of 3,000 that is surrounded by Nasa Indian reserves, was taken by storm between Apr. 14-16 by FARC, Colombia’s largest insurgent group, which has been fighting the army and right-wing paramilitary militias for four decades.
On Saturday, Tierrero, which the tanks and troops were unable to leave, was hit by FARC’s homemade gas cylinder bombs roughly every 10 minutes.
Despite the dangers involved in stopping there, the soldiers stopped and searched all passing vehicles.
That included the SUV in which this IPS correspondent and Nicole Karsin, a freelance reporter from the United States sent by the San Francisco Chronicle, were travelling, accompanied by five Nasa indigenous guards armed only with decorated staffs representing their authority.
A bus full of passengers was also stopped and searched, as was an ambulance carrying a dozen volunteer paramedics and doctors from the Salamandra Foundation, on their way to providing assistance to the indigenous community.
An officer told Karsin not to take pictures, and threatened to take "the roll" out of her digital camera.
As Karsin was protesting the attempt to obstruct her work as a journalist, a cylinder bomb hit a nearby gully, just below the military post and tanks, causing the civilians in the area to panic and run.
FARC’s homemade bombs, which can smash an armoured vehicle, have completely destroyed 18 houses in Toribio and damaged 206 others, most of which will have to be demolished later.
Both the government of right-wing President Alvaro Uribe and FARC have said they will not back down in their struggle for control over this indigenous area, where the current fighting has dragged on for two weeks.
"In the rural area, I think things are going to continue like this for 15 more days, or a month," said Arquimedes Vitonás, the mayor of Toribío.
Vitonás, a Nasa Indian activist, said he was worried because "people depend on their day’s wage, and this week they were unable to go to work…they have no money to buy things in the market. And the coffee beans are starting to fall off the bushes, because it’s harvest time."
The mayor said that if the fighting goes on for another month, the 3,000 residents of Toribío will find themselves in dire financial straits.
With his "democratic security" policy, Uribe is attempting to retake the parts of Colombia that are under insurgent control, while denying that the country is in the midst of a civil war.
Rather than acknowledging that there is an armed conflict, the president merely talks about the "terrorist threat" posed by the leftist rebel groups.
As part of its effort to regain control, the government reopened police stations in Toribío and 15 other villages and towns in the region in late 2003.
The current fighting broke out when FARC launched an attack on the police post in Toribío.
The government is putting an emphasis on fighting what it considers the FARC rearguard, in southern Colombia, through the U.S.-financed Plan Patriot, to which the U.S. armed forces have assigned a number of advisers.
Security analyst Alfredo Rangel commented to IPS that the government has dedicated 20 percent of the military forces to Plan Patriot in the southern Amazon jungle. Meanwhile, troops are stretched thin in regions like Cauca, where he said the rebels are growing quickly in strength.
Rangel said the battle of Toribío, which has already extended to other towns and villages, "is the most important test of military strength between FARC and Uribe."
The president declared Tuesday in Bogota that he would "kick FARC out of Cauca," and that it is necessary to "persist."
Governor Musicué said "If there were (peace) talks (with the guerrillas), we would not be in the middle of this."
The peace talks with FARC collapsed in 2002, under then president Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002).
"The national government says it has the area under control and that there is no combat, but you yourselves can see that the fighting continues," said Musicué. "It is one thing for (Uribe) to talk, sitting there comfortably and getting a good night’s sleep, but it’s another thing to be here in the middle of all these people, it’s really hard."
He also said there is a big difference between giving the army orders from afar and seeing how complicated the situation is on the ground, in such a rugged mountainous area.
"The Nasa people were on red alert because of the violence that lay ahead. We as authorities had to warn the people, in our community meetings," said the governor.
"Right now, while we’re all crammed in here together, what we are saying is that we have to be patient, because where could we run to? We can’t abandon our land, because this is where we live, and this is where we’ll die.
"We know that if we went to the cities we would only suffer greater hunger, needs and poverty. We don’t want to go to urban areas. Here we have our fields of yucca, beans and corn, and we know that when the fighting lets up a little, we can go out and harvest some food," said Musicué.