The indigenous people of southwest Colombia, known for years of unarmed resistance to guerillas, hope to be remembered in the peace accord between the government and FARC rebel movement which could be signed this spring. JusticeInfo’s correpondent went to their region.
For several months, inhabitants of Toribío village in southwest Colombia have not heard any shots. Children can again play outside in the evening in front of the church without fear. The region has started to live again since the FARC implemented a ceasefire seven months ago. “In the last 25 years, our village has been taken 14 times by rebels,” says Nasa people’s governor Gabriel Pavi. “There have been skirmishes here 700 times and we have suffered from the violence of this war.”
Around the bullet-ridden governorate, destroyed houses testify to one of the worst attacks on Toribío, on July 9, 2011. On that day a bus laden with explosives destroyed one third of the village, and nothing has been rebuilt since. “There has been some aid for reconstruction,” says the governor. “But no-one wanted to come and live near the police!”
Toribío, a rebel stronghold, has much to gain or lose in the peace process started three years ago in Cuba between the Colombian government and FARC, the oldest guerilla movement in Latin America. Most of its inhabitants welcome each bit of progress in the peace process, but they remain circumspect about the content of the upcoming accord, of which only the broad outline is known.
“We are the first people affected, but we are the last to be informed,” complains a Nasa guard. Each of these guards carries with pride a baton of authority distinguishing him from other members of the community. This piece of sculpted wood, decorated with coloured ribbons, is a symbol of the peaceful resistance these mountain people have for years put up against the rebels. Armed with these batons, they have gone many times to rescue their children recruited by the Marxist group, or chase soldiers and rebels from their territory to avoid clashes.
Will this symbolic strength help them get their voices heard in peace time, they are wondering? The Colombian Constitution adopted in 1991* grants the Nasa people the right to try criminals captured on their reserves. In recent years the community has sentenced rebels to between 40 and 60 years in jail for murder. What will happen when the peace deal is signed? The agreement on justice between the government and FARC provides for much lighter sentences: for those that confess, community work and restrictions on freedom without detention. But the indigenous people want at least a short period of detention. “Not in a prison, that is not in our culture, but in a place where they must spend a set amount of time and work for the community,” says Esneider Gomez, one of the leaders of the North Cauca Native Assembly (ACIN). “They should not be free!”
“We also need to prepare to reintegrate our brothers who joined the war. Some have known nothing other than war,” stresses the governor. For the moment, the Nasa have their own reinsertion programmes for child soldiers they have managed to persuade back with the help of shamans, charged with bringing the teenagers back to their families. “Some have gone back to school, others are now working with our non-armed guards,” says director Yolanda Pito. Nobody knows how this system, seen as an example, will fit in with the planned post-conflict programmes of the government.
As well as individual reparations promised to victims, Toribío is also demanding collective reparations. “That could be land, roads, production projects, construction of schools,” says Esneider Gomez. The Nasa people want to turn their mountains from a former war zone to a tourist site and are even willing to let ex-fighters work alongside them and the visitors. The first community guest houses are under construction. Shops are starting to reopen in the region.
In addition to forgiveness ceremonies, reparations, truth and justice, the inhabitants say the peace deal – which could be signed in March, according to official channels — must include social measures to ensure non-repetition. “Otherwise we will have other problems,” says Esneider Gomez, “like stealing and drug trafficking.” Looking at the fields of coca and cannabis lining roads in the region, he is probably right. Much still needs to be done to bring these regions out of the inequality and illegality that has fuelled the Colombian conflict.
*following a peace process with the M19 rebel movement, whose demobilization took place a few kilometres from Toribío.