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COLOMBIA: Native Reserve Braces Itself as Conflict Escalates

TACUEYÓ, Colombia , Aug 3 2011 (IPS) - Sitting outside her small shop, high in the mountains in the Tacueyó indigenous reserve in southwest Colombia, Liliana Alarco tries to hold back tears as she recalls the day her young son was injured.

A member of the "indigenous guard" in Tacueyó stands besides a cross that commemorates the adolescents killed at an insurgent training camp in March. Credit: William Lloyd George/IPS

A member of the "indigenous guard" in Tacueyó stands besides a cross that commemorates the adolescents killed at an insurgent training camp in March. Credit: William Lloyd George/IPS

When the military installed a base close to their village in Buenavista, in Colombia’s southwestern Cauca province, she says her family knew something bad was bound to happen.

“We lived there peacefully for many years, but when the military came they were fighting with the guerrillas nearly everyday,” she tells IPS.

Then one day, as her 13-year-old boy was walking home from school, fighting broke out between the leftwing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and government soldiers. Her son was caught in the middle as the two sides exchanged gun and mortar fire. Suddenly, a large bomb exploded, and her son was hit in the stomach by shrapnel.

“It was terrible, his entire digestive system was destroyed,” she says, adding that he was in a coma for a month. Eventually, they managed to raise the money to get him the treatment he needed, which saved his life. But while his health may be better, the trauma remains, says Alarco.

“He does not sleep at night, he cannot stand the sight of soldiers and he is always scared,” she says. Following the incident, she moved her family to Tacueyó in hope of escaping the intense fighting. For some time now she and her sons have lived in relative peace. Soon, though, this is expected to change.

On Jul. 15, an extra 500 special “high mountain” troops were deployed to the Tacueyó region to step up the hunt for FARC chief Alfonso Cano, who the government believes is based in the rugged Andes mountains in that area.

The special forces were added to the nearly 15,000 troops already deployed in that area of the north of Cauca province.

For Alarco and the civilians who inhabit the steep mountain slopes around Tacueyó, the increase in troops is a major concern. While many voiced grievances about living close to FARC territory, it is an increase in fighting that worries them most. Like Alarco’s son, the local indigenous population is often caught in the crossfire.

A fear for any indigenous town when troops are posted nearby is the potential for an urban attack by the guerrillas.

Tacueyó, San Francisco and Toribío are three indigenous reserves in the north of Cauca, home to some 28,000 people, more than 90 percent of whom are Nasa Indians.

On Saturday Jul. 9, Sara Muñoz and her three children were at the only bank in Toribío, a small town close to Tacueyó. “We were just waiting in line, when we were thrown to the floor and heard loud explosions. We were trapped under the roof for hours,” Muñoz tells IPS.

FARC rebels had stormed the town on a busy market day. A grenade was thrown at the bank, but most of the impact came from a car bomb detonated outside the police station.

While the fortress-like police station escaped with a few scratches on its thick walls, nearly 500 surrounding houses were damaged or destroyed.

Muñoz’s house, next to the police station, was completely destroyed by the blast. Her father, 65-year-old butcher Jesús Muñoz who was helping her brother in the packed market, was hit in the head by shrapnel and killed instantly. He was one of four people who died in the blast – three civilians and one police officer. In addition, 122 people were injured.

Sitting in her mother’s home surrounded by her young children, Muñoz tells IPS how terrified they were. Her eldest watched his grandfather die. “We don’t know what we will do now. We don’t want to stay here, it’s not safe, we want to leave,” she said. “Many innocent and good people are being caught up in a conflict we have nothing to do with.”

The FARC took up arms in 1964 in this very region.

Fed up with the suffering and innocent bloodshed, indigenous leaders have called for the complete demilitarisation of their land. They are demanding that both the FARC and the army leave their territory, and have also urged the government of conservative President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC to start peace talks.

“The new high altitude troops are coming without our permission. We know the effects this will have – they will turn our territory into a war zone, which will inevitably affect the civilian population,” says José Miller Correa, governor of the indigenous council in the Tacueyó reserve.

“So we the indigenous people will come together and drive them all off our land. Not just the military but also the guerrillas,” he adds.

Another concern for the indigenous leaders is the number of people fleeing their territory due to the violence. They are losing many young people, who either go to the cities to find work or are coerced into joining the FARC at a young age.

Sitting outside his home halfway up a mountain on the outskirts of Tacueyó, Juan (not his real name) tells IPS how he was recruited to the ranks of the guerrillas at the age of 13. “They would constantly call on me and ask me to come to training and tell me I would be a man if I did,” he says.

Then one night in March, he was called by a FARC contact to come to a training session. In the middle of the night, the government forces bombed the area, killing 16 of the 40 or so young people there.

According to the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), at least four of the victims were minors, who were “supposedly combatants.”

ACIN also stated in its communiqué that two civilians went missing there, and their bodies later showed up in the morgue in the city of Cali, the capital of the neighbouring province of Valle del Cauca, “reported as guerrillas killed in the army operation.”

It is widely alleged here that the FARC contact who invited Juan and the others to the training session was actually a demobilised insurgent who had been paid by the military to set up the operation.

“They paid him to let them kill us, so they could pretend we were all real full-time guerrillas, and they would get reward money,” adds Juan. “I am scared to see more military of any type in this area.”

As the army steps up its offensive, parents and social workers in the reserve are worried that the FARC will increase its efforts to recruit children. Many are also concerned about the possibility of a repeat of what happened in March.

For the people of Tacueyó, it is a terrifying time. While the indigenous leaders attempt to drive out all armed groups, the government is bringing in more soldiers. As fighting inevitably increases, the local native people will be the ones who suffer the most as the conflict rages throughout their mountainous region in the coming months.

Those who have already experienced first hand what happens when fighting erupts are bracing themselves for more suffering.

“He’s only just started going back to school after his injury,” Alarco says about her son. “It’s a horrible life when you are always worrying what will happen the next time your boy walks home.”

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