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RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Nasa Indians Demand Urgent Action from UN

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, May 26 2005 (IPS) - “The way the justice system used to work, you were innocent until proven guilty. Now it’s the other way around,” indigenous activist Alfredo Acosta told IPS.

Acosta, the head of the “indigenous guard” of the Nasa (or Paez) ethnic group in Colombia, was commenting on the release of 12 members of his community, who had been taken into custody early this month by the Colombian army.

According to the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), the 12 Nasa Indians released Tuesday night had been detained without an arrest warrant. Although the prosecutor’s office “accused them of ‘rebellion’ and ‘terrorism’, it found no evidence” to bring charges, Acosta added.

The indigenous people who were arrested will bring legal action for slander against the officials who publicly accused them of belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main leftist rebel group fighting the army and right-wing paramilitary militias in the four-decade civil war in this South American country.

Meanwhile, fighting between the army and FARC in the region around the Nasa town of Toribío in the Andes mountains in southwestern Colombia has raged for six weeks.

This week, Nasa leaders told the fourth session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, taking place May 16-27 in New York, that their people are in a state of emergency.

Their letter was addressed to Roberto Stavenhagen, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples.

Nasa leader Ezequiel Vitonás, an elder councillor in ACIN, and Aidé Quilcue of the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), called on the U.N. to take “urgent action” to ensure that the autonomy and neutrality of indigenous peoples is respected, as recognised by the Colombian constitution.

The battle in and around Toribío broke out in mid-April, when the FARC attacked the police station in the town, which is located in the southwestern department (province) of Cauca.

The guerrillas had previously warned local residents to evacuate.

In the fighting, an 11-year-old boy was killed by a stray bullet, 27 civilians were injured, three policemen were killed and five injured, 18 houses were totally destroyed, and 206 were damaged to the point that they had to be demolished later.

The outcome of the battle is still not clear. The fighting is taking place in Nasa territory, declared neutral by the well-organised Nasa people, who have a long history of fighting for their rights.

“The guerrillas freely move around all of the local villages, paths and roads,” and harass people on a daily basis in nearby rural areas, Feliciano Valencia, ACIN coordinator of human rights issues, commented to IPS.

According to a commission of indigenous authorities that carried out a fact-finding mission in the area, “it appears that the guerrillas have complete control,” he said.

The region around Toribío is largely dominated by the FARC, but the government of right-wing President Alvaro Uribe has sent the army in to regain control.

But the soldiers “are exhausted, overwhelmed. They themselves say this is an absurd war,” said Valencia.

The army, backed up by the air force, “has penetrated all the way up to the cold, bleak highlands, where the soldiers find themselves in extremely difficult conditions, which they tell us about when they pass by on the paths and roads,” he added.

Although there have been no more civilian deaths or injuries since Apr. 14, the situation remains dangerous for the residents of Toribío, who regularly flee to the shelters created by local NASA authorities, whenever the fighting flares up.

Women who have been staying in the shelter in López, high up in the mountains, will have to move to another refuge because despite the efforts of the International Committee of the Red Cross, not enough food is reaching them, Valencia explained.

The constant rain has made it impossible for the people in the shelters to hang up their clothes to dry, and there is a shortage of cloth diapers for the little ones. Epidemics have become routine, and the schools have been shut down.

Soldiers have occupied homes abandoned by local residents who fled the fighting, and they park their tanks next to the houses, said Valencia.

The Nasa people, who number around 150,000, are the second-largest indigenous group in Colombia, where some 90 different aboriginal groups make up nearly two percent of a total population of 44 million.

Last week, the state civil intelligence service announced that it was ordering the arrest of 200 Nasa Indians suspected of collaborating with or belonging to the FARC.

The military searched the home of Nasa leader Vicente Otero on May 19, claiming to have found uniforms and weapons.

But the local indigenous authorities say it is all part of a set-up.

Otero, former mayor of the Nasa town of Caldono, is staying away from the area. He is under the protection of the government office of the people’s defender (ombudsman).

Valencia said rural communities in the area have repeatedly been threatened by the FARC. “The guerrillas say we are army collaborators, that we have helped the army, and that we open our doors to the soldiers, while we send them (the rebels) away,” he said.

“We are asking the guerrillas to pull out of our territory, because we need our land to plant food,” he added.

The army, meanwhile, “is carrying out an ‘educational’ campaign in the communities, especially among the children. The army brings them little soldier dolls with the messages ‘join up’ and ‘collaborate’. There are even pamphlets with phone numbers to call and report on the guerrillas,” said Valencia.

“With these little booklets in their hands, they ask who the child’s father is, who the father talks to, who visits them at home, and what they themselves think of the soldiers. They make charts and drawings, where they show a soldier and a guerrilla and say the soldier is the good guy and the guerrilla is the bad guy, because he shoots at the soldier,” he said.

“This situation places us in grave danger,” he underlined.

After the local residents of Toribío refused to allow the army to carry out their campaign in the town, the armed forces set up a loudspeaker “which they use every day to issue statements, and they have begun to criticise the local council, saying we are opposed to them, that we’re enemies of the state,” said Valencia.

Anonymous pamphlets have also been distributed, “threatening local leaders and other residents by name. The army argues that the mayor of Toribío, Arquímedes Vitonás, is no longer mayor but simply a leader of the indigenous reserve, which is why it no longer respects his authority. The army refuses to obey the directives of the top authority in the municipality,” he said.

Arquímedes Vitonás was named person of the year in 2004 by the press in Colombia, and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) granted him the title of Master of Wisdom for his leadership among the Nasa community. His development plan was also considered the best in the country by the governmental National Planning Department.

Valencia predicts targeted attacks on the local indigenous people. “The pamphlets worry us deeply, because this is just what happened in 2001, when massacres occurred here.” He was referring to the killings of dozens of indigenous people and the disappearance of 24 others, which were blamed on the paramilitaries.

Manuel Rozental, an exiled Colombian medical doctor and human rights activist, told the New York-based Democracy Now radio programme late last week that “the natural resources of the country are what’s at stake” in the armed conflict, and that Cauca is “rich in water, in oil, in gas, mining resources such as gold, and is geo-strategically very important” because it “gives access from the Amazon jungle to the Pacific Ocean.”

Over the past two decades, hundreds of Nasa leaders have been killed, targeted by all sides in the conflict.

Indigenous people and campesinos (peasant farmers) of the area, who refuse to support any of the armed groups in the war and have declared civil resistance against forced displacement, have asked for assistance from the Nasa indigenous guard, said Acosta.

(A total of around three million people have been forced by the violence to flee their homes and villages in Colombia).

The indigenous guard, which numbers around 11,000 members who are armed merely with decorated staffs that symbolise their authority, received the National Peace Prize in 2004.

The guards protect people in the area from external aggression, organising the communities to deal with incursions by armed groups and drug traffickers through non-violent tactics, civil resistance, local shelters and mass demonstrations. They also enforce a ban on carrying weapons in the local communities.

In New York, Ezequiel Vitonás and Aidé Quilcue urged the United Nations to recognise the Nasa indigenous guard as an “international peace agent”.

Indigenous authorities meeting last Sunday in Cauca confirmed the Nasa people’s neutrality in the war, and reiterated the demand for a ceasefire and the total demilitarisation of Nasa territory, said Acosta.

The Nasa people have decided to name a committee to report on the situation to the group of 24 international donors and multilateral institutions closely following the situation in Colombia. They will also ask the U.N. to name a special rapporteur for Colombia’s indigenous peoples.

“We have already moved from concern to outrage,” said Valencia. “Many of us have begun to run out of patience.”

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