Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

COLOMBIA: Neutrality Not an Option for Indigenous Community

Constanza Vieira

TORIBIO, Colombia, Apr 29 2005 (IPS) - "I have cried these last few days more than I had cried in my entire life," Braulio Mendoza told IPS, sitting amidst the rubble of what was once his home.

His house and two shops in the Colombian town of Toribío were destroyed in a guerrilla attack two weeks ago.

The town is located in the southwestern department (province) of Cauca, in an area where the population is mainly indigenous.

It was 5:00 PM and Mendoza, a 57-year-old shopkeeper, was drinking "chicha" liquor with three other men. "All I have left are my friends, who helped me knock down the few bits that were left standing," he said.

Pointing to the Coca Cola bottle containing the homemade fermented corn liquor, he said "this is the only thing that brings some consolation. For a little while at least."

Mendoza’s 12-room house, set on a 10 X 35 metre-lot, was home to the shopkeeper and his wife, their two grown sons, and the sons’ wives and children, none of whom were hurt, fortunately.

Eighteen years ago, Mendoza opened a clothing shop and a shoe store in the front of the house, which supported all three families.

But both his home and businesses were destroyed on Apr. 14, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) opened fire on the town with assault rifles, machine guns and homemade gas cylinder bombs fired by improvised missile launchers.

FARC, Colombia’s largest rebel group, which has been fighting since 1964, gave the local residents prior warning of the attack, although without providing a specific date. Although many evacuated, others stayed behind.

The target of the assault was the police station.

FARC’s gas cylinder bombs can tear apart an armoured vehicle, and the shock wave can knock down nearby houses, which in this indigenous region are mainly made of "bahareque": bamboo frames, walls made of an earth and fibrous mixture, and mud tile covering.

The insurgent offensive was met by heavy artillery fire and grenades from the police, who had returned to Toribío in November 2003.

For years, the state had no presence in many villages and towns in war-torn Colombia, like Toribío.

Since the police station was built, the town’s 3,000 residents have become accustomed to near-daily attacks by the rebels.

But two weeks ago, they realised that things were more serious when they saw the guerrillas coming down from the nearby mountains around two hours after the first explosion.

Over half of the population fled to the "permanent assembly" centres – the name given by the local Nasa indigenous people to the shelters they set up two years ago for use in the event of an escalation of the armed conflict in the area.

"The rest of us stayed nearby, watching as the guerrillas passed by with their cylinder bombs and launched them, because what else could we do," Nasa indigenous leader Arquimedes Vitonás, the mayor of Toribío, told IPS with resignation.

Mendoza, meanwhile, said "Look, those are homeless children, and they’re my grandchildren," pointing to four youngsters between the ages of six and eight who were playing in front of a nearby building, which was also partially destroyed.

Near the children lay the remains of a counter, a twisted metal table, and parts of broken beds. A sign lying on the ground read "Mendoza Shoes".

Behind Mendoza’s house were the charred remains of what was once a large fruit tree. Nine days after the assault, the smell of burnt wood still lingered.

But the police bunker stood intact, less than 50 metres away.

During the assault, the guerrillas entered the houses of local residents to shoot at the police from inside.

But besides the bunker, the police had built around 40 sandbag barricades alongside local houses, in preparation for an attack.

The day after the Apr. 14 assault, right-wing President Alvaro Uribe visited Toribío, where he was jeered by many of the local residents.

Some of the locals said Uribe’s visit triggered the second attack by the rebels, on Apr. 16, as a show of strength.

Vitonás reported that in the two incidents, one child and three police officers were killed, 27 civilians and five police were injured, 18 homes were completely destroyed, and 206 sustained such severe damage that they will have to be demolished.

In addition, a patient in the hospital was injured by a bullet that went through the roof, while several other bullets hit patients’ beds without causing any damages, said the mayor.

"We also have to fix up the school, because (the guerrillas) used it to shoot from," he added.

The people that IPS talked to in Toribío said the FARC combatants took shelter behind houses, the school and the hospital, but this did not keep the police from shooting at these buildings, which are protected by international humanitarian law.

The nine-year-old boy who died was killed by a shot to the forehead, which was aimed at a police barricade on the corner, 20 metres away.

Along with seven other children and six adults, the boy had taken refuge in a house with a concrete roof, where he was huddling in a corner.

Local authorities said that since the police returned to the town in late 2003, they had asked Uribe, both in person and by letter, to remove both the police and army troops from the area, in order to allow the Nasa people and their territory to remain neutral.

They said they had also told FARC, through every means possible, that they wished to remain neutral in the civil war.

In the statement that the local authorities released Apr. 16, they said the rebel attack targeted the police, who "have taken refuge in the cultural centre in the park in downtown Toribío," one of the buildings that was destroyed.

"The army and police have been brought in here to draw the civilian population into the conflict," they maintained.

They also complained that insurgents shot at police who were hiding between the houses and among the people, who are living in their "ancestral" territory, "and the result is destruction, death and terror."

But among the people of Toribío there is no consensus as to whether the police should leave.

In Mendoza’s view, "the law is the law."

"The law respects us more," said one of his friends who helped clean up the rubble of his house.

According to Mendoza and his friend, the Nasa indigenous guard, a group of civilians who carry nothing more than decorated staffs as a symbol of their authority, does not guarantee safety in the town and only patrols the surrounding indigenous reserves.

For that reason, said the two men, they want the police to stay.

Vitonás said many people in the town were not happy that the police built barricades next to houses, because of the threat that posed to the local residents. But he said they have not directly complained about the situation.

The problem, he explained, is that "removal of the barricades would mean the police would have to be confined to the bunker, or would become direct targets as they stand guard."

According to the mayor, most of the townspeople say "it would be better if there were no police, but there has to be someone standing guard, because this territory is not part of the reserve," where the indigenous guard operates.

He told IPS that "The police are here to protect the Agrarian Bank, because that’s where the money is, and it can be robbed by the guerrillas. And to guard the city hall, which could also become a target.

"Basically for those two things, because I don’t know how true it is that the police protect the local population. It’s more like the people take care of the police here," Vitonás argued.

"If the guerrillas wanted to, right at this moment they could shoot cylinder bombs at us from a rocket launcher two or three kilometres away. But we believe the rebels won’t shoot at the town any more," he added.

By last Saturday, the fighting had moved on to nearby rural areas, and on Tuesday, Nasa Indians from the surrounding region came to Toribío to help their fellow community members begin to rebuild.

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