Colombia's casualties

November 08, 2005|By G. JEFFERSON PRICE III

Quibdo, Colombia -- The last time Eleana Cordova saw her husband was nine years ago today.

His torso was lying in the dirt near the family's modest dwelling in a farming community called Bojaya near the banks of the Atrato River. Nearby lay his legs, and his arms and his head, which, Mrs. Cordova said, had been severed one at a time by a Colombian paramilitary militiaman.

Why? Because her husband hesitated when he was ordered to cut the hair of his 1-year-old son. A tradition exists among her people, she explained, in which a boy's hair is not cut until he reaches a certain age, 1 1/2 or 2. But the paramilitary did not care.

"He said that rebels have long hair," said Mrs. Cordova, an Afro-Colombian, and thus one of the most discriminated-against people in Colombia. "So we must be rebels."

Instead of cutting the infant boy's hair, the "para" chopped the father limb from limb and left him in the dirt.

Such was, and still is, the barbaric nature of the abiding conflict in Colombia, one that concerns America enormously and induces Washington to spend more here than in any other foreign country outside of Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Egypt.

For the United States, this conflict is part of the war on drugs, for Colombia still produces 90 percent of the cocaine that reaches America.

But since 9/11, the war on drugs in Colombia has insinuated itself into the war on terrorism. It has been an easy insinuation because terror is a very large element of the internal conflict that has plagued Colombia for the last four decades, in which all of the "armed actors," as they have come to be called, use terror to achieve their ends.

They are so obscenely wedded to this methodology, in fact, that the deep-rooted social inequities that aroused a revolt in the first place have been lost in the mist of time. Now it's all about power, achieved by violence.

All the sides are engaged in it: the rebels - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym FARC, and the National Liberation Army (ELN) - and the government's kindred-spirited paramilitaries. The paramilitaries started off as vigilantes to protect their communities from the rebels, but they became a national vigilante force known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC,) - often doing the dirty work of the army.

All three of these are identified now as terrorist groups by the United States. The government here, headed for the last two years by tough-talking President Alvaro Uribe and his supporters, embrace the jingo idiom of 9/11 anti-terrorism almost as enthusiastically as British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But there the similarity ends, for a variety of brutal forces are not killing people over turf in the Cotswolds.

So why do we begin here with Eleana Cordova, whose husband was cut limb from limb on Nov. 8, 1996?

Three reasons.

One is that her experience is an example of the indiscriminate brutality of the conflict in Colombia. Six years after she fled the violence inflicted by the paramilitaries in Bojaya, traveling by boat with the remainder of her family - three sons and a daughter - FARC rebels entered the community to get rid of the paramilitaries. They managed to incinerate a church to which people had fled, killing 119 people inside. They did apologize.

The second is that, since she arrived here nearly a decade ago, she and her kids have been living in an appalling shanty town called Villa Espana outside of Quibdo, still waiting for the government to fulfill obligations to take care of her and others like her.

And finally, perhaps most important, notwithstanding the brutality visited upon her individually, she is only one of nearly 3 million Colombians driven from their homes and their livelihoods in a senseless, drug-driven conflict, now insinuated into the war on terrorism.

This isn't the war on drugs. It isn't the war on terrorism. It's just a war that people are making money from - drug sellers and the people who sell them weapons.

In that, as in most of the conflicts of the world today - over drugs, oil or uranium - Eleana Cordova and her children are part of a huge mass of unattended humanity. She is poor in a land where the number of poor people far exceeds people of wealth, many of whom profit from the conflict.

Think of Eleana Cordova the next time some big guy boasts of grand successes in the name of mankind's security.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun who has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services. His e-mail is gjeffersonprice@yahoo.com.

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