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Colombia: Humanitarian Minga Recovers Bodies of Awá Indigenous

On March 23, 2009, a group of 470 Colombian indigenous, mostly from the Southwestern and Central region, departed [es] from El Diviso, a small town (corregimiento) belonging to the Barbacoas municipality in Nariño department. It was the ‘humanitarian minga‘, a mission the indigenous carried out in order to rescue the bodies of their fellows from Awá tribe, who were murdered in February by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which admitted [es] they killed 8 indigenous, accusing them of co-operating with the army. One week later, on April 2nd, the group of around 700 people (including a few journalists from domestic, alternative, and especially foreign media, indigenous senator Jesús Piñacué, and two officers from the Ombudsman's Office; around 300 joined the march on its way) went back to El Diviso, where they held a public conference. The minga managed to recover 8 bodies, including 5 of them from the February massacre.

The journey

The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC for its Spanish initials), which organized the minga with the Indigenous Unity of Awá People (UNIPA, for its Spanish initials), had been posting daily updates on the minga on their blog. On March 25 they published [es] a report about the Extra-Ordinary Assembly of Indigenous Authorities, held the weekend before the minga, where they discussed how they became caught in the middle of the Colombian internal armed conflict:

En esta región del país donde habitan cerca de 15.000 indígenas Awá la disputa por el control territorial por parte de los actores armados legales e ilegales y algunas estructuras del narcotráfico en medio de las comunidades indígenas ha puesto en riesgo la integridad física, cultural y territorial de los indígena[s]. Para la Asamblea [Extraordinaria de Autoridades Indígenas] esta disputa: “ha vulnerado nuestros derechos y nuestra autonomía, desconociéndonos como sujetos políticos y de derechos y nos consideran como estorbos tanto para el régimen de derecha como de izquierda por el hecho de defender nuestra madre tierra, nuestra autonomía y cosmovisión propia, por nuestra posición integral, amplia, clara, transparente en la insistencia por defender la vida”.

In this region of the country, where about 15,000 Awá indigenous live[,] disputes for territorial control by the legal and illegal armed actors and some drug-trafficking structures in the middle of the indigenous communities have put the physical, cultural, and territorial integrity of the indigenous communities at risk. For the [Extra-ordinary] Assembly [of Indigenous Authorities] this dispute “has hurt our rights and our autonomy, failing to recognize us as political subjects with rights and for considering us nuisances both for the right-wing regime and the left-wing because our defense of our mother Earth, our autonomy and our own ancestral world-view, because of our own comprehensive, wide, clear, and transparent position regarding our insistence for defending life.”

Also on March 25, the minga found [es] a common grave with the bodies of Orlando Taicús (father), James Taicús, and Hugo Taicús (sons), who, according to the indigenous authorities and based on information provided by the community, were murdered by FARC in September 2008. The report from an investigative commission of the minga [es], issued on April 2nd, states that an underage girl from the same family had her leg amputated after being shot with a rifle. The rest of the family (“three widows and four orphan children”) were displaced from the territory. On the March 27 post, the indigenous claimed that they found members of the public security forces inside the Awá indigenous territory, and demanded all armed groups to refrain from any action against the minga.

On March 29, the minga arrived to the place where the February massacre may likely have occurred, the remote Tortugaña Telembí resguardo (reservation), and found [es] four corpses, two males (one was 15 years old) and two pregnant women, both less than 25 years-old. The post also states that a forensic commission from the Inspector General's Office arrived to the jungle area, guided and protected by the indigenous guard. The children who died inside their mothers’ wombs were posthumously named Ñambí and Telembí and honoured [es] by the minga after their return.

The next day, a fifth body had been found nearby, as well as proof of the presence of armed groups, as Sergio Vargas from El Macarenazoo alternative newspaper writes [es]:

En el octavo día de Minga, lunes 30 de marzo, se desplazó la última comisión a una vereda cercana de El Volteadero, loma arriba. Allí, se encontró la octava tumba, se hizo el registro pertinente, pero, además, se hallaron pruebas de la presencia guerrillera: Trincheras construidas en el subsuelo y galones con estopines, aparentemente utilizados como bombas que funcionan con el mismo mecanismo de las minas quiebra patas, incluso se hallaban banderas blancas justo encima de donde estaban construidas las trincheras.

En el paso que utilizamos cerca de cuatro veces para desplazarnos de El Volteadero a El Bravo encontramos una mina que estaba desactivada, pero que fue acordonada por la seguridad de los mingueros. Estaba tapada con tierra, pero la salida de dos cables dio cuenta de que estuvimos al borde de una tragedia, no queríamos venir con más muertos. En ese mismo paso, se encontraba, al lado de la trocha, un laboratorio de procesamiento de cocaína. Desde la primera hasta la última vez que lo vimos hubo cambios sustanciales; al principio un plástico transparente lo recubría, pero ya al final éste se había caído, y varias canecas en su interior habían sido movidas. La Minga tenía prohibido pisar este tipo de terrenos, por lo cual es ilógico pensar que un miembro de la comisión humanitaria pudiera haber generado estos cambios, además integrantes de la guardia indígena aseguraron haber visto en sus inmediaciones dos guerrilleros armados ingresando al laboratorio.

On the eighth day of the minga, Monday, March 30, the last commission travelled to a small town (vereda) close to El Volteadero, up the hill. There, the eight tombs were found, the appropriate record was made, and in addition, proof of the presence of the guerrillas was found too: trenches built on the subsoil and gallons with detonators, apparently used as bombs which work with the same mechanism of land mines, there were even white flags just above the places where the trenches were built.

On the pass we used around four times to move from El Volteadero to El Bravo we found a deactivated land mine, which was sealed off for the safety of the minga walkers. It was covered with dirt, but two cables coming out from it made us realize that we were on the verge of a tragedy, we didn't want to have more dead. At the same pass, we found, at one side of the road, a cocaine processing lab. From the first to the last time we saw it there were substantial changes; at the beginning, a transparent plastic covered it, but in the end it had fallen to the floor, and several bins inside had been moved. The minga had been banned from stepping on that kind of grounds, therefore it is illogical to think that a member of the humanitarian commission could have caused those changes[;] besides, members of the indigenous guard claimed they had seen in the surrounding area two armed guerrilla fighters entering the lab.

Vargas also slams the mainstream media (by calling them “propaganda mass media”) for having “slandered the minga” by claiming the indigenous “were starving” and that senator Piñacué was one of people most affected. This was because two helicopters (one of the Colombian Red Cross and other from the Acción Social government cooperation agency) had reached the area carrying food. According to Vargas, the food was delivered to the displaced indigenous people at El Diviso.

The report of the investigative commission

Finally, the minga came back to El Diviso and presented the report issued by an investigative commission. Despite not having found all the bodies (besides the 8 deaths admitted by FARC, there were other 3 murders and another 6 indigenous are reportedly missing), the minga claimed they had fulfilled [es] their initial objective, condemning FARC's “cruelty by beheading, torturing, and murdering our brothers Awá,” including the two pregnant women with their children, adding that FARC are perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity. The minga also condemned another armed actors, such as the ELN guerrillas, the paramilitary squads, and Los Rastrojos —a drug-trafficking band—, “who abuse the human rights of our communities and hurt our people's autonomy.” They went on by saying that “any act of violence committed by armed actors wherever it comes from will be condemned and denounced by our organizations and [other] human rights organizations,” demanding the material and intelectual authors of the massacre to be convicted. They also clarified that, unlike what some media published based on Army reports, “there were no bodies” with land mines on them.

The report of the investigative commission [es] provides details of what the minga found during their 10-day journey:

En desarrollo del recorrido se logró llegar a la quebrada el Ojal, perteneciente a la comunidad el Bravo, encontrando allí, a las 12: 45 PM, el cuerpo sin vida de Omaira Arias Nastacuás, quien fuera brutalmente asesinada contando al momento de los hechos con 3 mese[s] de embarazo. Según los testimonios, este cuerpo padecía muestras de torturas practicadas por arma blanca.

(…)

En la misma avanzada en predios de la desembocadura de la quebrada el Ojal al rio Bravo se logró encontrar los cuerpos (sic) de Blanca Patricia Guanga Nastacuas con aproximadamente 18 años de edad, quien en el momento de los hechos contara con 7 meses de embarazo. Se evidenció que su vientre fue abierto con arma blanca, extrayéndole el bebe. No logrando encontrar el cuerpo del bebe.

Al lado se encontró el cadáver de Robinson Cuasalusan, quien padeciera las mismas formas de torturas. Dedos amputados y degollado su cuello.

During the journey the minga managed to arrive to el Ojal stream, which belongs to El Bravo community, finding, at 12:45 PM, the dead body of Omaira Arias Nastacuás, who was brutally murdered being 3 months pregnant when the event occurred. According to witness accounts, this body had signs of tortures perpetrated with a sharp instrument.

(…)

On the same outpost, near the mouth of el Ojal stream to the Bravo river, the bodies (sic) of Blanca Patricia Guanga Nastacuas, approximately 18 years-old, 7 months pregnant when the event occurred, were found. It was evident her womb was cut open with a knife, the baby being removed. The baby was not found.

By her side, the corpse of Robinson Cuasalusan, tortured the same way, was found. His fingers were amputated and his throat cut.

La comisión denuncia la orden que dio la FARC a los pobladores de no tocar ni dar información sobre los cuerpos ni sobre lo sucedido so pena de muerte.

Para esta comisión es de claro conocimiento que los argumentos que las FARC, presenten como actos justificatorios, es una farsa, pues las comunidades indígenas de Tortugaña, no son colaboradores ni sapos del Ejercito, por el contrario son comunidades que se encuentra aterrorizadas por los constantes combates que se han venido desarrollando en esa parte del territorio indígena Awá.

Por último esta comisión concluye, que antes de ocurrir los hechos el Ejercito Nacional si estuvo, en las viviendas de las víctimas instando a los comuneros participar en su lucha contra la insurgencia.

Expuestas las anteriores consideraciones, queda claro que por un lado el territorio Awá de Tortugaña es un cementerio colectivo y que es la Minga Humanitaria la que logra destapar ese escenario de impunidad que se venía gestando en este territorio por causa del temor de sus pobladores.

The commission denounces the order FARC issued to the indigenous to not to touch the bodies nor give information about them or the events, under penalty of death [if they do].

To this commission it is clearly understood that arguments FARC give as justification are a farce, because the indigenous communities of Tortugaña are not Army co-operators or snitches[;] on the contrary, they're communities which are terrified because of the combats happening in that part of the Awá indigenous territory.

Finally, this commission concludes that before the events occurred the [Colombian] National Army indeed did [visit] the victims’ houses, urging the community members to participate in their fight against the insurgency.

The considerations above exposed, it is clear that, on one hand, the Awá territory of Tortugaña is a collective cemetery and that it is the Humanitarian Minga the one that managed to uncover this impunity scenario which had been developing in this territory because of its inhabitants’ fear.

The minga states that they managed to do what some State institutions couldn't, making evident that “many of the official government arguments are false and that it lacked a true political and moral will to rescue the bodies and intervening in the Awá people social issues.”

According to an Ombudsman's Office press release [es], three of the bodies found were moved by the Inspector General's Office forensic commission to the port of Tumaco, whereas the coordinates of the remaining five were recorded by the Ombudsman Office's officials in order to the Attorney General's Office technical forensics team to disinter and remove the dead bodies.

Caruri agrees [es] with the minga‘s conclusions about the government:

En dos meses las autoridades colombianas no fueron capaces —ni tuveron siquiera la intención— de buscar esos muertos. Porque no eran suyos, no eran “de los suyos”, no eran importantes, no generaban retribuciones políticas, no daban votos.
Qué lástima. Qué vergüenza!

In two months Colombian authorities weren't able —they didn't even had the intention— to search for the dead. Because they weren't their dead, they weren't “from their people,” they weren't important, they didn't provide any political retributions, they didn't give votes.
What a pity. Shame on them!

On Sunday, the ONIC reported and denounced [es] the death of Hermes Nastacuás, another Awá indigenous who stepped on a land mine put by FARC. His three little children, who were walking with him, were wounded. The land mines were located in the same area the humanitarian minga had been days before. This crime's news was echoed by EFE news agency [es] and other local media.

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