The UN High Commissioner for Refugees called upon Colombia to investigate the killings of a group of indigenous people last week that raised fears of a mass exodus. UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva Feb. 10 that “an irregular armed group” carried out an attack on the Awá people in a remote jungle region of Nariño department, killing 17 people. Nariño’s socialist governor Antonio Navarro, citing witness accounts, said the attack had been carried out by the FARC guerillas.
Navarro said FARC guerillas tied up the 17 members of the Awá community and stabbed them to death, “accusing them of collaborating with the army.” He said the lack of “basic security conditions” has prevented human rights officials from reaching the region to investigate. “It is a difficult jungle area, filled with anti-personnel mines and with a very aggressive guerrilla force that has not the slightest reservations against attacking the civilian population,” Navarro said.
The UNHCR said the killings could spur an exodus among the Awá, who number some 21,000 in Colombia. “The rest of the population is now extremely frightened amid increasing concerns over a mass displacement of people in the days to come,” Redmond said in Geneva, adding that the Awa people “have been subjected to severe rights violations, repeated murders and force displacement,” with some seeking refuge in neighboring Ecuador. He said such violence had pushed more than a third of Colombia’s 87 indigenous tribes to the brink of extinction.
Human Rights Watch in New York blasted the FARC’s “utter disregard for the lives of civilians and refusal to respect the most basic tenets of humanitarian law.” The group’s Americas director José Miguel Vivanco said: “These cruel killings violate the most basic principles of human decency and dignity. There is no possible excuse or justification for these horrific actions.” (Reuters, AFP, Feb. 10)
Days after the first massacre, another 10 Awá people—including men, women and children—were killed in second attack. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) said the victims were fleeing the area in response to the earlier attack when they were again set upon by an armed band. ONIC said the attacks could be reprisals for some Awá—under threats and pressure from the military—having informed on the presence of guerillas in th area. The ONIC statement said the first attack took place Feb. 4 near the Rio Telembí in the Tortugaña indigenous reserve. (Telám, Argentina, Feb. 13; ONIC statement, Feb. 12 via Center for International Policy)
Indigenous leaders met with Nariño departmental authorities Feb. 13 at the capital Pasto to demand protection, said Eder Burgos, director of the Awá community organization Comawari. President Álvaro Uribe has ordered military forces to region to investigate the incident, but the inaccessibility of the area, and FARC land-mines, are slowing their advance. Colombians for Peace, a group of intellectuals that came together last year to dialogue with the FARC on hostage release, called upon the guerilla organization to issue a statement on the attack. (AFP, La Jornada, Mexico, Feb. 13)
For years, the Awá have been displaced by fighting in Nariño. Ironically, they have also faced reprisals from the army and right-wing paramilitaries following accusations of collaborating with the guerillas, as well as facing repression for efforts to defend their land rights. They have also faced violence across the border in Ecuador.
The FARC has recently been accused of threatening indigenous communities across the Venezuelan border in the Sierra de Perijá. Two years ago, the guerillas were accused of deadly attacks on isolated indigenous groups in the Amazon region of Colombia. Several indigenous groups in Colombia are thought to be near extinction.
See our last post on Colombia and the FARC.
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