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COLOMBIA: Indigenous Women Brave War Zone to Express Solidarity

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Jul 25 2005 (IPS) - A caravan of around 1,250 indigenous and afro-Colombian women and women’s rights activists drove Saturday into an area of southwestern Colombia that is caught up in fighting between leftist guerrillas and the army, for a “Visit to the Family”.

Under this Nasa Indian tradition, the broader community accompanies families who are experiencing hard times.

The Nasa (also known as Paez) Indians who live in the southwestern region of Cauca account for 300,000 of the estimated one million indigenous people in this country of 44 million. They are the second largest of Colombia’s 90 indigenous groups.

In mid-April, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – the biggest rebel group – attacked the police station in the town of Toribío, which is located in Nasa territory in the Andes mountains.

Since then, the Nasa Indians in that region have been caught in the crossfire between the leftist insurgents and the military.

The Visit to the Family caravan was organised by the Women’s Coordinating Committee of the Indigenous Regional Council of Cauca (CRIC), the leading indigenous organisation in Colombia.

CRIC has its own political party, the Indigenous Social Alliance, which holds seats in Congress.

Co-organisers of the event were the Women’s Peace Route, which represents 300,000 women and won the Millennium Peace Prize for Women in 2001, awarded by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and International Alert, a UK-based conflict resolution group.

In keeping with the ageold Nasa tradition of accompanying those in trouble, the Women’s Peace Route, which was created in 1996, has driven in caravans into combat zones several times to express solidarity with the local civilian populations suffering the effects of Colombia’s four-decade armed conflict.

The Nasa people are demanding respect for their right to remain neutral in the civil war, while insisting that all combatants – whether leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, or the army – pull out of their territory.

But their struggle to remain neutral has put them in the sights of the security forces as well as the insurgents.

In addition, since the FARC rebels attempted to drive the police out of Toribío, the presence of paramilitary fighters has been growing in the area.

“We don’t understand why they are here, nor what they are up to. They belong to the Calima Bloc, which supposedly demobilised around six months ago,” Feliciano Valencia, human rights coordinator with the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), told IPS.

Under the timetable agreed in ongoing negotiations between the paramilitaries and the government, the demobilisation of the extreme right-wing groups is to be completed by December.

In the past, the Nasa people staged numerous occupations of property belonging to large landholders, laying claim to it as their ancestral territory.

“In this territory we recovered around 100 estates amounting to more than 300,000 hectares of land, and we thus forced the government to carry out agrarian reform,” said Ezequiel Vitonás, an elder councillor in ACIN, which is a regional branch of CRIC.

But the struggle over land has led to “the murder of more than 500 leaders – killings that were financed by landowners,” said Vitonás. Furthermore, since 1999, three high-level Nasa leaders were killed by FARC and two others were murdered by the army.

ACIN’s “Proyecto Nasa” or “Life Plan”, a local development initiative, has received national and international prizes. Over the past two years, the indigenous councils making up ACIN had been training in civil resistance, in case the fighting reached Nasa territory.

A total of 64 shelters were designated for people displaced by the violence, and now that fighting has broken out in the area, each family knows which refuge they are to flee to in case of emergency.

In a message to “all of the armed actors,” the Women’s Peace Route activists and other women taking part in the caravan demanded “the demilitarisation of civilian life and the local territory, in order to guarantee the autonomy of the communities whose ancestors have always lived here.”

They said the government must “remove the police from the towns” and keep the armed forces from occupying community installations.

The demonstrators also urged FARC not to recruit minors or plant land mines in the indigenous reserves, and called on both sides in the conflict not to destroy Nasa property.

The Visit to the Family was “an act of symbolic reparations for the territory and its local residents…an expression of peaceful resistance to demand that the combatants leave,” the women added.

The demonstrators were escorted by 400 members of the Nasa indigenous guard, who are armed only with decorated staffs representing their authority. The indigenous guard, made up of 10,000 young male and female members, was awarded the National Peace Prize in 2004.

Valencia said the caravan was closely searched at a military checkpoint on the way to Toribío.

In Toribío, one of the main Nasa towns, the indigenous councils informed the women of conditions in the area. “Local women denounced arbitrary acts by the security forces at checkpoints, and complained about the soldiers’ insistence on involving local residents in the conflict, investigating them and asking tendentious questions,” said Valencia.

“Thirty-three women have been sexually harassed or raped over the past three months in (the indigenous reserves of) Toribío, Jambaló and Caldono, since the conflict began to escalate,” Alejandra Miller, with the Women’s Peace Route, told IPS.

An Inter-American Commission on Human Rights rapporteur was given taped testimony from women in Tacueyó who described “how soldiers demanded that they take their clothes off and then touched their breasts,” she said. This also happened to two girls aged 13 and 17 who filed a complaint, which also went to the rapporteur, added Miller.

In the caravan, Nasa women were joined by delegations of Wayúu, Kankuama, U’wa, Uitota, Tikuna and Pijao indigenous women.

“There was an uncomfortable situation in Toribío because the police insisted on asking who had organised the march and why attacks had been mounted against the security forces,” said Miller.

“The indigenous women say the full moon gives them strength and protection, which is why the Visit was held at that time,” she said.

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