Village in Colombia Battles Violence, Wins Peace Prize
After intimidation by Army and rebels, farmers take stand. GRASS ROOTS CAMPAIGN
LA INDIA, COLOMBIA
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.Skip to next paragraph
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``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.
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'