Tuesday, May 03, 2005.
Pacifist Indian nation caught up in Colombia's civil war
By Juan Forero
The New York Times
May 2, 2005
"The Nasa Indians appear to live well on their lush reservation here in southern Colombia, a swath of mountains and valleys where sweet fruit grows, trout teem in fast-flowing creeks and colorful birds dart about.
"They live in tidy, well-kept homes, growing coffee, bananas and beans. Emphasizing economic independence, they run a successful fish farm and are trying to strike up a marble mine.
"The one major threat to their existence is Colombia's unrelenting civil conflict, which has ground on for 41 years. But the Nasa, an Indian nation that numbers about 100,000 in this region, has used a pacific civil resistance campaign to stay out of the drug-fueled war, which pits the army and right-wing paramilitaries against Marxist rebels intent on toppling the state.
"For four years, the Nasa's stern-faced but unarmed Indigenous Guards -- now a force of 7,000 men and women -- have simply driven away the fighters who venture into these fog-shrouded mountains in Cauca Province. They confront rebel and soldier alike with ceremonial three-foot batons decorated with tassels in the colors of the Nasa flag, green and red, and persuade the outsiders to leave...
"'We do not want armed groups on our land,' said Julio Mesa, 57, the leader of the Indigenous Guards in Tacueyó. 'So what we do is we get people together and get them out.'
"The Indians have forced traffickers to close down cocaine-producing labs. They have faced down paramilitary death squads. When the mayor of the Nasa town of Toribio was kidnapped by guerrillas last year, 400 guards marched two weeks over the Andes to the rebel camp where he was being held. They won his release.
"But in the last two weeks, brutal fighting has swept into three of the Nasa's eight towns, testing the Indians' pacifism and autonomy.
"Starting on April 14, the rebels began rocket attacks on Toribio. In nine days of fighting, a 9-year-old boy and several policemen and soldiers were killed. The government took back the town, but rebels pounded another community, Jambaló, with their notoriously inaccurate mortars, propane tanks armed with explosives. Tacueyó was next.
"Across Colombia, dozens of Indian tribes are being hammered by the war. Assassins single out leaders of the Wayuú in northeastern Colombia. In northwestern Choco State, Embera children, whipsawed by war and poverty, have committed suicide. Nationwide, tens of thousands of Indians have become refugees. Some of the smaller tribes, the United Nations recently warned, are on the verge of disappearing.
"Mr. Mesa and other Nasa leaders are determined to see their nation avoid that fate.
"'The government wants to involve us, in their army, in the police, in their informants network,' explained Nelson Lemus, an Indian leader. 'The guerrillas, they want us to get involved in the revolutionary story, the fight for power.'"
But "getting involved in war," he said, "hurts our culture, our language, our ways."