A tribe goes into battle over the `evil twins' of Colombia

Usually they would have been left to die in a rainforest. But, saved from that fate, two boys are now at the centre of a fight between their tribe and the state. By Jan McGirk
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A pair of unwanted baby boys has set off an extraordinary tug- of-war between the reclusive U'wa tribe in Colombia and welfare agencies. Twins are regarded as signs of evil by the tribe, and tiny Juan and Keila Aguablanca would ordinarily have been left to die of exposure in the rainforest. But these twins were bundled off to a village clinic in Saravena, north- east Colombia, where their frightened parents left them last February with a note for nurses pinned to their blankets.

The U'wa tribe now wants to prevent Juan and Keila, only six months old, from being adopted into the outside world. They are demanding them back, perhaps to let them die in the wild. The tribe resents government welfare agencies interfering in what it considers tribal affairs, after fighting for years in the courts to preserve its "ethnic, cultural, social and economic integrity", which it is guaranteed under the Colombian constitution.

The twins' mother and father were first-time parents, and initially banished by the elders, who expected them to be cursed after the ill-fated double birth. But after undergoing three months' spiritual guidance and eating only foods meant to purge the "imbalance" that led to bearing twins, the elders relented, allowing the couple to mingle and share communal meals.

"They're free now," says Roberto Perez, a U'wa spokesman. He recently filed a formal request for the entire family's reintegration into the U'wa community. "We are hoping for them [the twins] to be brought back," Perez declared.

Outsiders, however, fearing for their welfare, have repeatedly tried to block the move. In Colombia, where more than 80 different ethnic groups survive in the hinterlands, under constant threat of displacement by leftist guerrillas, trigger-happy right-wing paramilitaries, narco-thugs, or regular army patrols, any official decision that affects tribal rights sets precedents. Justice is a crucial concern to the 700,000 indigenous people in Colombia - a tiny minority out of 40 million inhabitants - and they see this battle as a test case. How far can the government go to safeguard practices that the Catholic majority deems immoral? What matters: the welfare of an individual, or the rights of a tribe?

"There's never been a case with such huge dimensions," says Blanca Lucia Echeverry, the chief Indian affairs aide to Colombia's Human Rights Commission.

If all the U'wa elders can be persuaded to protect the twins on ancestral land, and no calamity befalls the tribe, ancient beliefs may be altered for ever. However Barbara Escobar, director of an adoption centre in the capital, Bogot, doubts this will happen so abruptly. It is because of her fears for their safety that she is sheltering the boys, 200 miles away from the U'wa reserve. She has petitioned to keep Juan and Keila from ever rejoining the tribe. As a consequence, the Supreme Court overturned an earlier verdict, and now refuses to let the U'wa deliberate any longer over these two vulnerable lives. A ruling earlier this month meant that adoption proceedings could begin. But now the trial-savvy U'wa seek an appeal in the Constitutional Court.

Nora Rojas Arenas, regional director of family welfare in the Arauca province where the babies were first found, insists that a battery of medical and anthropological tests are needed to determine whether the children should be returned. There is proof that the mother and father never meant to end the twins' lives, she asserted, because they scrawled a hasty note rejecting the U'wa practice of returning to nature any inauspicious births - whether scrawny newborn twins or deformed babies - (the tribe believe that abandoned babies are reclaimed by nature and then move on to another world). "They brought them to the hospital and asked that they be turned over to the welfare system," Rojas states.

The U'wa are a tribe of around 7,000 fishermen and banana-harvesters, and are potent symbols of ethnic resistance. They escaped domination by the Spanish conquistadores by leaping off a precipice rather than submit, and for the past five years have won admirers around the world for standing up to multinational firms and rejecting the cash culture. When Occidental Petroleum and Shell Oil were scouting for drilling-sites in the ancestral territory - some experts suspect that oil reserves could rival Venezuela's - the tribe refused all offers outright. In 1995 their charismatic leader, Berito Kuwaru', vowed that the U'wa would hurl themselves off a sacred cliff in another mass suicide rather than let corporate greed suck away the crude oil, "the blood of mother Earth", from beneath their forests. More recently, the U'wa have moved their apocalyptic battles to the courtroom, the boardroom and the Internet.

Western environmentalists encourage the U'wa eco-warriors in their struggle against big business - but prefer to ignore infanticide. Meanwhile, the Aguablanca twins wheeze away in their orphanage cradles, oblivious to the drama surrounding them. Already, Bogot smog has aggravated the boys' respiratory problems while they wait for fosterparents. Colombia's other indigenous groups won't breathe easy until their landmark case is settled.

Additional reporting by Ruth Morris in Bogot