Photo: Colombian soldiers
Fighting between leftist FARC guerrillas and the Colombian security forces in the southwestern province of Cauca has driven more than 2,800 indigenous and mestizo people from their homes.
Around 1,500 of the displaced are from El Mango, a village outside the town of Argelia, where the International Committee of the Red Cross sent an initial shipment of 14 tons of humanitarian aid.
An ICRC representative in the southwestern city of Cali, Benno Kocher, said Friday the consignment includes food as well as construction materials to rebuild 74 homes rendered uninhabitable.
“We are concerned about the psychological effect on the population and the great number of people who have nowhere to return to once the situation normalizes, as many lost their houses after the battles,” he said in a statement.
The ICRC’s concern is shared by officials in the affected communities, while leaders of the nearly 100,000 Paez Indians who represent the majority in northern Cauca are demanding the withdrawal of both rebels and government troops.
The mayor of Toribio, Paez Indian Ezequiel Vitonas, told Efe by telephone that roughly 500 mestizos - people of mixed indigenous and European ancestry - have fled his municipality.
“Mestizos who lived from trade and retailing in the community have quickly emigrated, out of fear,” the mayor said.
Carlos Andres Alfonso, a senior councilor with the Association of Indigenous Governments of North Cauca, said Friday that the Indigenous Guard created by the Paez people to ensure sovereignty in their lands will continue with the task of enforcing “territorial control.”
Army troops guarding a cluster of telephone towers in the southwestern province of Cauca were driven out on Thursday by some 100 Indians.
Members of the Indigenous Guard took down gates and filled in the trenches of the military outpost on Berlin mountain, near the town of Toribio.
The Indians have repeatedly demanded that both the guerrillas and the security forces stay off their land and leave them out of the war.
The clashes in Cauca over the last 10 days prompted Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to travel to Toribio on Wednesday along with his Cabinet as a demonstration of Bogota’s concern about the situation in the province.
The indigenous people greeted Santos with boos and demanded that he withdraw the army and National Police from the area.
The Paez then approached checkpoints set up outside Toribio by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to encourage the rebels to clear out.
After Santos flatly rejected the Indians’ request and vowed not to demilitarize “a single centimeter” of Cauca, the Indigenous Guard - armed only with clubs - set out to drive the army from Toribio.
Colombia’s constitution recognizes the autonomy of the indigenous peoples and their right to exercise control over their designated territories.