(IPS) – The constant violations of international humanitarian law in Colombia claimed the life of an 11-year-old indigenous girl a month ago in the mountains of the southwest province of Cauca.
The army arrived at 4:40 AM on Thursday Sep. 15 and set up camp outside the school in El Credo, a village of 768 people and 136 houses on a hill between the city of Santander de Quilichao and Toribío, the main city of the Nasa indigenous people.
“We were waiting for them to leave,” Floresmiro Palomo, coordinator of the site that serves as the community shelter when fighting breaks out, told IPS.
Palomo is a member of the Indigenous Guard – a traditional civil resistance defence force made up of unarmed volunteers, both men and women, aimed at protecting the native culture in this indigenous territory.
By 6:30 AM the soldiers had not left, so an Indigenous Guard committee asked the commanding officers to pull the troops out of the area around the school, because it was the officially designated shelter and humanitarian zone.
The school, whose official title is the El Credo Agricultural Ethnoeducational Institution, is fenced off and clearly marked with white flags. A sign put up by the German humanitarian group Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe announces at the gate: “School zone – humanitarian protection area – no guns”.
During the frequent fighting in the area, which is of strategic importance in the 47-year war between the government forces and the communist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Indigenous Guard takes charge of trying to keep both sides away from the shelter.
In June 2010, in a military offensive carried out two months before President Juan Manuel Santos took office, the Indigenous Guard fenced off the hill where the school is located, “and when the army came, we didn’t let them in,” Palomo recalls.
“But this time they asked us for a legal document, to keep them out,” he explains. “They said this is not an official ‘permanent assembly site’ (the name given to the Nasa shelters), that it’s just a school. But we have a 300-metre area marked off here,” he said.
That Thursday, the women led a “human wall” of 300 indigenous people to keep the troops from entering the humanitarian zone.
Whenever army troops camp out in El Credo, the guerrillas show up a few hours later, to engage them in combat.
The FARC arrived at 8:30 AM and the fighting began. Some 600 army troops spread out uphill from El Credo, and farther down, in the hamlet of Pajarito, they clashed with the insurgents, who were firing from all sides.
By then, the school was full of people. The gunfire continued all day long. “The children were crying, and everyone was screaming in the middle of the firefight, but they just ignored us,” says Palomo.
The soldiers climbed up from Pajarito at 7:00 PM, and camped out around the school.
On Friday Sep. 16, the fighting started again at 5:45 AM. And once again, a committee of indigenous people went to talk to the commanders, to no avail. The military took up positions in the houses lining the entrance to the school: 28 houses with pots of colourful flowers along the road climbing up to El Credo.
“They started to shoot downhill from here, and the others (uphill) were shooting over our heads. And the people were all here,” Palomo describes.
Representatives of the regional authority, the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), went up to try to talk to the military commanders. But they were also ignored.
The fighting went on. “The guerrillas started to throw cylinder-bombs (homemade bombs made with cooking gas canisters). From up there in the mountains, the army was also shooting missiles,” Palomo adds.
Until an improvised explosive device landed in the yard of local indigenous journalist Abel Coicué at 3:50 PM, killing his daughter Vanesa and injuring eight others, mainly children.
The ombudsman’s office says the explosive device, full of shrapnel, was launched by the insurgents.
“The guerrillas shot it from below. From the hamlet of Pajarito. But we don’t know if it was really shot by the guerrillas, or by the army,” says Wilson García, vice president of the local community action council, created by the state as an interlocutor with government bodies.
The local indigenous people will wait for the forensic authorities to determine who threw the bomb. “The only thing we know is that they were launching bombs from here and there – from up above and from down below as well,” García adds.
“When that happened, then the army did pull out; they went up into the mountains,” says Palomo. By 5:00 PM there were no longer any army troops in El Credo. A few days later they came back, but they kept a careful distance.
Since Vanesa was killed, people have been going to the school in the evenings to sleep. “The permanent assembly has been declared indefinitely, as long as the armed groups are here,” says Palomo.
In the daytime, people continue going out to work, mainly in their vegetable gardens.
In the meantime, the Indigenous Guard goes up and down the mountains, patrolling day and night, “controlling the territory, to show them that we are organised,” he warns.
“After what happened, the community decided to do something drastic. That can bring us consequences, but the people say it doesn’t matter, and that if they see guerrillas, they will disarm them,” says Palomo.
The locals “say they are not going to let themselves be killed, like what is happening now,” he adds. They are thinking about confiscating and incinerating any guns they find in their territory, no matter whose hands they are in.
On the day the wake was held for Vanesa, Saturday Sep. 17, Colonel Hugo Meza, the local army commander, was notified of that decision.
So was the municipal ombudsman, the city government, the local government council, and the ombudsman in Popayán, the capital of the province of Cauca.
Palomo says “I sent it by fax, so they would know about the decision reached by the community.”
Colonel Meza’s answer was that his soldiers would not allow themselves to be disarmed.
The local indigenous people responded: “There are 600 of us. If we once again find 30 soldiers in our community, if they kill 100, there will still be 500 left to do the job that has to be done.”
Meza said “they are protecting us,” says Palomo. But “I told him they were causing us problems,” because if the troops had not been in the community, among the houses, “what happened would not have happened.”
The demilitarisation of Nasa territory is set to start this week.