Colombia’s Indians caught up in conflict

Written by: Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA (AlertNet) – The hooded, uniformed gunmen didn’t give any warning. At dawn, they simply started shooting indiscriminately at two huts in an indigenous reserve in southwestern Colombia killing 12 people, witnesses say. The dead, including seven children and a baby, were all members of Colombia’s Awa tribe, people who live in a region caught in the middle of a conflict that pits government forces against rebel groups and drug-traffickers. This murder, last month, brought to 38 the number of Awas killed in attacks this year. Over the last decade, armed groups have killed nearly 2,000 indigenous Colombians and 70,000 more have had to leave their jungle homes to escape sporadic clashes between the army and rebels and because they fear their children may be taken away as fighters, according to the United Nations. “This is yet again another massacre against the Awas, it’s a tragedy. The Awas are unarmed and defenceless and have no way of protecting themselves from such atrocities,” Luis Andrade, head of the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), told AlertNet. His organisation spoke to survivors of the attack. Last month’s murder took place in an Awa reserve in the province of Narino where criminals and guerrillas vie for control of lucrative cocaine-smuggling routes and a stake in the illegal logging trade. Like most indigenous groups in remote regions, the plight of the 25,000-strong Awa people living in mountainous reserves near Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador often remains invisible, and consequently ignored, by most Colombians living in cities. But the brutality of this murder grabbed nationwide attention. “This is something that deserves absolute, definitive and unanimous condemnation from all the people of Narino and Colombia,” provincial governor Navarro Wolf said on local television shortly after the attack. In the capital Bogota, the head of the main national opposition party also expressed outrage. “Once again we feel pain in front of the world regarding the shame felt from this progressive extermination of our indigenous populations,” Carlos Gaviria, head of the leading opposition party, The Democratic Pole, said in a statement. “This massacre is not an isolated case.” Around 100 Awa families have fled their ancestral homelands following the murders and 300 more could follow them out of fear of further attacks, says the indigenous group ONIC. The Awa tribe scrapes a living as subsistence farmers growing maize and beans in lands where often coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, is grown too.

Worker eradicates coca leaf

This brings them in close contact with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels who fund their activities by trafficking cocaine. Landmines the guerrillas plant to protect their coca fields compound the problems the Awa face. This week, Colombian authorities arrested a man suspected of taking part in the latest Awa murders – an Awa who local police say they believe was a gang member. The killing was punishment after an Awa family refused to make extortion payments, local press quoted police as saying. “We hope the arrest serves to clarify who is really responsible for this atrocity,” Andrade from ONIC said. But he said more needed to be done to protect the Awa tribes. “Let’s hope this arrest doesn’t ignore the humanitarian crisis the Awas are facing,” he said. The human rights situation for Colombia’s indigenous communities is “serious, critical and deeply worrying”, said James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on human rights, during a visit to the country in July. The Awa, like most of Colombia’s 84 indigenous groups, struggle daily to remain neutral in a conflict where both sides place pressure on indigenous tribes to participate. The rebels often demand food and shelter from them, while the army sometimes interrogates them about rebel movements, indigenous leaders say. The FARC have been responsible for the majority of killings of indigenous leaders over the years. The rebels often target Indians who they accuse of acting as informants for the military. Andrade said: “We don’t want to take part in this conflict and we’re not informers for anyone.”


spotted by RS

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