Village in Colombia Battles Violence, Wins Peace Prize

After intimidation by Army and rebels, farmers take stand. GRASS ROOTS CAMPAIGN

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ONLY recently this farming village of about 6,000 on the banks of the Carare River was under constant threat, along with many others in a region torn by violence. Leftist guerrillas, the Colombian Army, and right-wing death squads each terrorized the inhabitants, viewing them either as supporters or the enemy. Suspicion often led to murder.

``Just a few years ago, you had to be in your house with the doors closed by 6 p.m. or they would kill you,'' says a man known as Mill'on, a long-time resident of La India.

Bad memories are still vivid. But now at least there is hope, springing from organized passive resistance to the death mongers on the extreme right and left. La India, 100 miles north of Bogot'a, is one village in the violent Magdalena Valley agricultural region where neither leftist nor rightist murderers are welcome.

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Leading the anti-violence campaign is the Association of Peasant Workers of Carare, a cooperative formed by about 7,000 farmers, woodcutters, and their families. The association's success has won it an international peace prize and led some government officials to view the village as a model for pacifying other areas. Dancing in the streets

Association leaders are traveling to Stockholm for the Sunday presentation of the Right Livelihood Award, often called the alternative Nobel Peace Prize. The group will be given the award and a check for $40,000 in the Swedish Parliament the day before the Nobel Prize ceremony. A Swedish member of the European Parliament, Jakob von Uexkull, created the prize in 1980 to recognize practical work by grass-roots organizations and individuals confronting problems around the world.

When the village learned it had won this year's award, there was celebrating in the dirt streets. Aura Rosa Cifuentes Jerez, a local school teacher says her students' were so excited ``we had to forget about class for the day.''

The kids still beam when the prize is mentioned. Their evident pride is unusual in the Magdalena Valley, where generations of peasants have been cowed by leftist rebels and the Army commanders fighting them. As one nine-year-old boy says, ``We realize that this prize was won after a lot of sadness.''

That sadness intensified in 1976, when the Army built a base at La India.

``They said they came to defend us, but what they really did was intimidate and weaken us,'' says a farmer, who asked not to be identified. ``In the eight years after the Army arrived they took me in 20 times for questioning.''

He says leftist rebels belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia were more direct. ``If you didn't cooperate with them, they killed you.''

Mill'on tells how an armed group shot and killed his wife four years ago. ``They must have seen me saying `hello' to some soldier and decided I was an informer,'' he says.

Several massacres and other killings during the 1970s and 80s made the region one of the country's most dreaded. The terror climaxed May 16, 1987, the rainy day that death squads arrived in La India. Armed men in military fatigues trudged through the grey mud breaking into homes. La India residents say the group said they were helping the Army rid the militarized zone around the village of subversives. The paramilitary group gave them four choices: join them, join the leftist guerrillas, leave the zone, or die. Later a regional military commander repeated the ultimatum, residents say.

A group of peasants led by Jos'e Vargas, decided there was a fifth choice: unite. Mr. Vargas began building the association from a base of 20 peasants, many of whom had helped colonize the tropical region decades earlier. Within weeks, thousands of residents were telling leftist guerrillas, the Army, and paramilitary groups to leave them alone. The goal was survival'

At a June 11 meeting, 2,500 of them told leftist rebels they could no longer give them river transportation, food and shelter. Days later the association met with the Army and paramilitary squad representatives to demand an end to torture, disappearances, food rationing and other abuses.

``Our only goal was survival,'' says Orlando Gait'an, the association's current president. ``We didn't want to be sacrificed like a bunch of chickens.''

Despite their initial suspicion, both the rebels and the Army decided to pull out. Strengthened by the success, the association began attacking the poverty at the root of La India's problems. Miguel Angel Barajas, a government land agent, settled in La India in 1988. Mr. Barajas's knowledge of government programs helped get loans to build schools and improve transportation.

In a recent story for Bogot'a's El Tiempo newspaper, Barajas summarized the association's work over 30 months. He told how a new cooperative store had eliminated gouging by middlemen and how schools were being built and crops planted in peace.

``Now that the season of life has returned,'' he wrote, ``I begin to feel the presentiment that I will die here, not by the action of a weapon, but naturally...''

The article was published posthumously. A right-wing death squad shot and killed Barajas, Vargas, and another association leader, Saul Castaneda, last February in the town of Cimitarra, just 18 miles from La India. Silvia Duz'an, a journalist who had been reporting on the region's paramilitary squads, was also killed in the attack, which occurred in an ice cream parlor.

The murders wounded the association but did not kill it. Mr. Gait'an and others bravely took up the nonviolence banner.

``The peace prize is more beautiful because it came after the tragedy,'' says Mill'on. ``If we had resorted to violence, we wouldn't have deserved it.''

Gait'an adds that the association's work has just begun. ``Everyday I have to think about how to keep peace,'' he says. ``I am not afraid of the guerrillas, the Army, nor the paramilitary groups. I am afraid of letting down this community.''

Jorge Melo, a government human rights counselor, says the fortitude of La India's people made the village worth studying as a model for pacification. Region still heavily armed

But some independent human rights activists doubt whether La India's experiment will succeed. They point to areas where regional Army commanders and land-hungry cattle ranchers have supported paramilitary squads in driving peasants off their land.

Real peace in the zone, they say, will be achieved only when the government cracks down on Army members supporting death squads. In its latest report, the independent human right group America's Watch says the government has failed to sever such ties.

The report says political violence continues to take more lives in Colombia than any other country in the Western Hemisphere. It notes that approximately 3,200 political killings took place in 1989, down from 4,000 in 1988.

The area around La India is one of the most heavily armed in the nation. There are 10,000 or so combatants, including soldiers, paramilitary and guerrilla forces.

Still, association leaders are confident that with new recognition and government resources, La India can keep the peace.

``We have the rudder in our hand'' said Simon Reyes, the association's vice president. Yet, Gait'an admits the ``paramilitary squad members haven't gone away and haven't died.

``Some have been here watching us during your visit,'' he told a reporter. The real fear is that peace prizes aside, the death squads may again decide to do more than just watch.''

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