Two million displaced in a tropical replay of Bosnia

IT COULD be the Garden of Eden. Our horses' hooves ring on the stones of the bridleway and splash through the fords as we ride under the canopy of bamboo and trees and admire the distant mountain views. The air is warm, the children are playing in the little river and the birds are singing.

But this is not the Garden of Eden. This is a tropical version of Bosnia, where 2 million people are displaced in the greatest current disaster in the Western Hemisphere. A group of peasants are making their regular trip up to the village of La Unin and the lands they left in fear a year ago. As we ride by, they point to a grassy knoll where a blood-stained shirt hangs listlessly in the heat. That is the grave of three men recently assassinated by the local death squad. A mile farther on a single Wellington boot identifies the otherwise unmarked grave of a fourth.

We are on our way from San Jose de Apartad, a village of about 900 people which a year ago was bold enough to declare peace in a country which has been at war with itself since 1948. Early last year the people announced that they would no longer collaborate with the army, or the paramilitary death squads or the guerrillas whose daily battles for control of land have made this region the bloodiest in Colombia and a prime reason for the displaced people. As the villagers proclaimed their "peace community", they even promised they would give up carrying guns themselves.

In the square in San Jose where they dry the fat, purple cocoa beans, the walls are painted with crosses and the words, "Comunidad de Paz", Peace Community, and a gang of men is at work to finish a garden and a fountain paid for by the British government. They have been helped to keep going with aid from Oxfam.

But despite foreign help they have paid a fearful price for their contrary and awkward pacifism. Forty-six of the villagers, 5 per cent of the population, have been killed over the year. Six were murdered by the guerrillas or their allies. The rest are the victims of the "paramilitary" death squads. As a clear and deliberate strategic option the Colombian army has passed on the job of assassinating those considered to be enemies of the state, since they can do anonymously the dirty work that would otherwise be traced to identifiable military units.

"The paramilitaries and the army collaborate in massacres," says Javier Giraldo, a prominent human rights campaigner. But the armed forces have not gone to sleep; the sounds of Colombian air force bombers and the army's artillery commonly resound around the mountains.

The villagers, however, have not allowed hope to die as they load their packhorses with sacks containing a hundred banana plants which, with luck, will bear a crop in a few months. As we arrive in La Unin, the plants are unloaded and one or two men go to inspect the onions they had previously sown in neat lines in the deserted gardens of the ravaged and abandoned houses.

"This is the place where I used to go to school," says Juan, a boy of about 10 who has come up with us. He shows off a set of bullet-marked huts, doors hanging off their hinges, exercise books scattered and rotting walls bearing the dreaded signature ACCU. These are the initials of the principal group of death squads, the Peasant Defence Force of Cordoba and Urab, a singularly ill-named body which is in fact run by the local landowners.

The ACCU was probably responsible for the graves we passed on the way up. Despite the government's protests that it is hunting the well-known leaders of ACCU they remain at liberty, in contact with officials and, according to revelations by senior army officers themselves, in close operational co-ordination with the forces of the state.

In this region few narcotics are grown or traded and the misconceived and disastrously organised "war of drugs", which is routinely and inaccurately blamed for Colombia's troubles, plays little part in the pervasive violence. The root of the problem has nothing at all to do with marijuana or cocaine but is a political battle which has been raging for 50 years - since well before the drugs boom.

In this battle the Colombian establishment has consistently blocked calls for reform and a fairer society, while the groups on the left have resorted to arms. The 2 million displaced civilians have few links to the drug barons or to the armed left. They are almost all innocent victims.

The collaboration of the army with the death squads is evident. The rough road which is the only route for vehicles into this region is guarded by a military checkpoint where soldiers check the Jeeps and the broken down buses, confiscating all but the barest essentials lest, they argue, supplies are passed onto the guerrillas. A sergeant warns me to be careful of my life in what, he says, is dangerous bandit territory, and his men go through our luggage and the villagers' purchases in town.

A few hundred metres on, in full view of the military checkpoint, is another checkpoint where the death squads operate. "If the soldiers find a person they want to eliminate when they search the Jeeps and the buses they let him pass through," explains one villager. "They radio up to the paramilitaries at the second checkpoint and the death squads do the necessary."

In the Colombian maelstrom the army is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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