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Surviving Colombia's killing fields

Thousands have died as guerrillas fight paramilitaries, troops and each other. Phil Davison visits a nursery for children scarred by `la violencia'
FOUR-YEAR-OLD Juan Carlos Urquiza ran a finger over his red crayon drawing for the benefit of one of the few foreigners he had ever seen. "These are my three wars," he whispered shyly, pointing to three sun- like circles surrounded by rays. "That's a pistol. That's a helicopter." By his "wars," his teacher explained, he meant the shoot-outs or massacres he had lived through in Colombia's killing fields.

Several thousand people have been killed in the northern Uraba region over the past two years, more than 500 of them in and around Apartado, a town of only 80,000 and little more than one bustling main street. There has been conflict here for nearly seven decades, going back to a massacre of banana workers in 1929 - described by the Colombian novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude - by agents of wealthy plantation owners.

The recent killings, however, involve political left versus right, guerrillas against paramilitary groups, the guerrillas against the Colombian army and, often, left-wing guerrillas or political groups against each other. Most of the deaths have been in massacres by increasingly powerful paramilitary groups, apparently backed by the Colombian army and banana plantation owners, aimed at driving the Marxist guerrillas from a zone they had controlled for years.

At the heart of the disputes is Uraba's strategic location between the Pacific and the Caribbean and close to Panama, one of the world's major conduits for drugs, weapons and assorted contraband. Much Colombian cocaine exits through here to the Caribbean islands and on to the US or Europe. And in turn, weapons from around the world come in here, through Panama. Apartado is only 40 miles from Panama by land, but the jungle is virtually impassable. So, most of the smuggling is by sea - it is one hour by motor boat across the Gulf of Uraba.

Little Juan Carlos is one of 60 young victims of the violence receiving special education at a nursery school in Apartado mostly financed by the British charity Children of the Andes, aided by a grant from the National Lottery. The aim is to get the infants' experiences out of their system early, by encouraging them to draw and, eventually, to talk about them. The teachers, too, are either victims of, or refugees from, the violence.

Juan Carlos's mother did not want to talk of their experiences. But her neighbours described how the paramilitary groups, in camouflage fatigues and often balaclavas, had materialised in their barrio over the past two years, kicked down doors, dragged out the menfolk and shot them, slit their throats or bludgeoned them to death on the unpaved streets.

One teacher, Isabel Cifuentes, 50, told me how her husband and eight other banana workers were killed while walking home from a finca (ranch) known as Carmen Alicia. "The gunmen had a list. They stopped the workers by the roadside, checked the names and killed everyone on the list. Witnesses told me it was the macetos (mallet men) who shot them." The paramilitary gunmen often favour battering their victims to death with mallets to save bullets.

In Apartado la violencia is as much the topic of conversation as "the troubles" were in the Northern Ireland of the Seventies. Edgy Colombian army troops patrol the streets with the same posture as their British counterparts in Ulster. And similarly to Northern Ireland, people know the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the paramilitaries are not far away.

As in Ulster, one had the distinct impression that virtually every youth on a street corner, warily eyeing a rare foreigner, might belong to one or other armed group. There seemed little doubt that most Apartado residents, mainly poor black or mulatto descendants of slaves, supported the FARC, while business owners were glad to see the back of the guerrillas.

"We still live in fear," said Mrs Cifuentes as her class of 15 two and three-year-olds took a siesta on two thin mattresses on the school's tiled floor. "The lull means someone is going to come back." At least 2,000 paramilitaries are said to be around Apartado, with up to 1,000 FARC guerrillas regrouping up in the Abibe hills a few miles to the north-east, possibly planning to retake the town they controlled until the paramilitaries drove them out two years ago.

The paramilitaries are led by Carlos Castano, a stocky 33-year-old cattle rancher's son who took to the mountains as a teenager in the early 1980s, pledging revenge after FARC guerrillas killed his father. Now with a $1m (pounds 630,000) reward on his head, he is thought to be based in the hills above the town of Valencia, about 30 miles north-east of here. His men, calling themselves the Peasant Self-Defence Force of Cordoba and Uraba (ACCU), used to operate mainly in Uraba - a region straddling the provinces of Antioquia, Cordoba and Choco - but have been blamed for recent massacres of guerrilla sympathisers hundreds of miles away in the centre and east of Colombia.

People there say Mr Castano's men were flown in on military aircraft, armed by the Colombian armed forces and flown out again after the massacres. The fact that the paramilitary gunmen from the other corner of the country had lists of alleged guerrilla sympathisers was a further indication of assistance from the military, they believe.

"Having got its own fingers burnt, the army decided years ago to let the paramilitaries do their dirty work," said Constanza Ardila, a veteran human rights worker who has survived two assassination attempts. She founded Ceda Vida (Let There Be Life), a Colombian charity group which runs the British-financed nursery school.

Getting the children to the school safely was the first problem. "To your left is Barrio Obrera. To your right, Barrio Policarpa," said Ms Ardila as we drove along a narrow road choked with ancient wooden-sided buses and horses and carts loaded with bananas. "Very few people dare cross this road." Each barrio is controlled by a rival left-wing group spun off from the guerrillas, and many of the killings result from hit- and-run attacks between them.

"The leftists have always fought among themselves. But we have kids and teachers from both sides here," Ms Ardila told me. "We're trying to teach them that all grief is equal, that they must create a community spirit to build a peaceful and tolerant environment to end this terrible cycle."

t Children of the Andes can be reached in London on 0171 739 1328.