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RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Displaced Pay Homage to Victims of Paramilitaries

Helda Martínez

FLANDES, Colombia, Mar 5 2008 (IPS) - "It was an homage to the indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, peasant farmers and everyone else who has been killed in this absurd war," indigenous activist Manuel Bautista told IPS at the start of a three-day march that will end in the Colombian capital Thursday.

Bautista and others affected by Colombia’s civil war threw thousands of flowers into the Magdalena river, which crosses the country from south to north, on Tuesday in a "national homage to the victims of paramilitarism, parapolitics and crimes of the state."

The flowers of all colours were cast into the river by around 700 indigenous and black people displaced by the war who came from the western provinces of Chocó and Cauca to join others from the central provinces of Tolima, Huila and Cundinamarca in the march.

The ceremony took place on a bridge joining Flandes, a fishing village in Tolima, with Girardot, a town in Cundinamarca, in west-central Colombia.

According to a local non-governmental organisation, Justice and Peace, "nearly four million people in Colombia have been displaced and have been stripped of their land, and at least 15,000 people have been forcibly disappeared, with their bodies buried in 3,000 secret common graves or thrown into rivers."

"It was moving," Iván Cepeda, head of the Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State, told IPS. "A show of generosity, of commitment on the part of indigenous communities who have been scorned by the rest of society, and on the part of black women, who also suffer discrimination, and who came from Chocó filled with the pain of seeing so many people ‘disappear’."

The protesters will walk to Bogotá, where they will join a Mar. 6 nationwide demonstration for peace and against the war.

"We have come here, fully aware of what our communities are experiencing with the start of the second phase of Plan Colombia (the U.S.-financed counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy) which, as we know, has brought further forced displacement, evictions, bombing, disappearances and death," said Bautista.

Colombia has been in the grip of armed conflict for more than 40 years, with leftist insurgent groups that emerged in the 1960s facing off with state security forces and, since the 1980s, with far-right paramilitary militias that act in collusion with the armed forces.

"We must all acknowledge the pain of the rural villages, of the remote and isolated regions. Because we Colombians are always focusing on how to enjoy ourselves and live better, while we refuse to face the truth, let alone express shared indignation," former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus told IPS before rejoining the indigenous peoples’ march in Tuesday’s 40 degree C heat.

"But these mobilisations should give rise to a conviction, a momentum that leads us to say ‘Never Again’," said Mockus, who added that "short-cuts, easy solutions and short-term results, so common in both our recent and more remote past, must be avoided."

He described as "short-cuts" the decision by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas to set up a camp inside Ecuadorian territory, taking shelter behind the border, or "the government deciding to bomb that camp, instead of consulting with the Ecuadorian president and somehow obtaining his consent, because they preferred success."

The rebel group’s practice of taking hostages and "paramilitarism" are also short-cuts, said Mockus, who served as mayor of Bogotá from 1995 to 1997 and from 2001 to 2003.

"Instead of building a state of law with security forces that are respectful of human rights, the short-cut of paramilitarism was taken, which has produced undesirable consequences," he said.

The United Nations attributes 80 percent of the human rights crimes committed in Colombia’s armed conflict to the paramilitary groups, some of which took part in a controversial demobilisation process negotiated with the rightwing government of Álvaro Uribe.

"Today, by means of peaceful demonstrations, we must learn the patience of the long way round, which is the way solid results are achieved," said Mockus.

More survivors of the violence joined the march in villages and towns along the way: Melgar, Boquerón and Silvania, where the protesters camped Tuesday night before continuing on their way Wednesday.

Another famous participant in the march is the "peace walker", Gustavo Moncayo, a high school teacher who has hiked around the country and to the Venezuelan capital, calling for the release of his son, army corporal Pablo Moncayo, who was taken hostage by the FARC in December 1997.

Wednesday evening the protesters will reach Soacha, a shantytown on the southwest side of Bogotá, where Liberal Party candidate Luis Carlos Galán was assassinated 19 years ago. They will be received there by his son, Liberal Party Senator Juan Manuel Galán.

In Soacha, the march will be joined by hundreds of other people displaced by the war, at least 200 of whom gathered in a vigil that lasted till midnight Sunday in Bogotá’s central Plaza de Bolívar to read out accounts of their suffering.

The participants were invited to add their testimonies to an open book. But as one toothless woman in tattered clothes said, "there aren’t enough pages to describe what I have suffered."

On Thursday, people from all over Colombia will meet in the capital’s Plaza de Bolívar and in other cities around the country, to take part in the Mar. 6 demonstration. Marches for peace and against paramilitary violence will also be held in other countries that day.

"We will once again be demanding truth, justice, peace, land for peasants and democracy for everyone in Colombia," said Cepeda.

The latest report by Justice and Peace states that "more than 1,700 indigenous people, 2,550 trade unionists and 5,000 members of the Patriotic Union (a leftist political party that was wiped out in an extermination campaign) were killed between 1982 and 2005. The paramilitaries committed more than 3,500 massacres and stole more than six million hectares of land."

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