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In Colombia's Civil War, Neutrality Can Pay Off

"If you want to make peace with Colombia's warring parties, you'd better be prepared to do it yourself." That's what many of the country's indigenous groups have decided.

"For personal and cultural survival, we want out. This isn't our war," says Guzmn Caizamo, vice president of the Indigenous Organization of Antioquia (OIA). And he may be right.

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The country's civil war is now entering its fourth decade, and from the heated and contradictory statements issued by the government last week, it is clear that prospects for any kind of peace will not come from the top down. The appeal that neutrality holds for so many Colombian civil groups may indicate that the majority of the population feels just as alien to the conflict as the indigenous groups do.

The OIA represents the 94 indigenous villages in the north-western province of Antioquia. Through direct negotiations with the country's leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and armed forces, the group declared the indigenous population neutral in October 1994. The idea, clearly, has some appeal. Many civilian organizations are trying to follow their example.

Antioquia contains the country's most violent region, Uraba. The land around the Gulf of Uraba is where the struggle is most polarized and bloody. The particular curse of the war in Uraba is that more than 90 percent of the casualties are civilian - the armed groups execute those they suspect of collaboration with the other side.

There were well over 1,000 so-called "political killings" in Uraba last year. Of the 15,000 indigenous Colombians in Antioquia, says Mr. Caizamo, some 12,000 live in the Uraba region.

"All of the indigenous leaders sat down to think about what could happen.... What came out was the declaration of neutrality," he says. The declaration of "Active Neutrality" was announced publicly and delivered to all of the warring parties by the OIA in 1994. The declaration stated that all indigenous people in the region of Uraba were neither friend nor enemy of any of the armed groups. It also made clear that indigenous groups were not indifferent to the conflict and would continue to denounce any attacks on indigenous populations, as well as policing themselves for violations of the pact.

And by most accounts, the group's representatives say, remaining neutral has paid off. Last Sunday, a group of them met in Medelln to discuss the progress of their campaign. There have been two killings of indigenous men in Uraba this year. Last year, 10 were killed.

The most publicized recognition of the neutrality came this winter from right-wing warlord Carlos Castao, who leads a local paramilitary army. His militia receives financial support from large landowners and drug traffickers and operates with the tacit support of the Army. Hoping to gain the OIA's allegiance in his fight against the leftist guerrillas, Mr. Castao offered the group a tract of 741 acres as a sanctuary. The OIA rejected the offer.

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"We can't accept any offer from the paras, the guerrilla, or the Army. What we're saying is that we don't agree with any of the three," says Caizamo.

In the last three months, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Apartado, the largest city in Uraba, has tried emulate the program with "peace communities," villages that also declare themselves "actively neutral." But they have not met with immediate results.

"There have been may difficulties, but we'll keep trying," says Sister Rosa Cadavit of the Diocese of Apartado. The indigenous groups, she says, have inspired the "peace communities," provided them with advice, and have been much better organized than other communities in Uraba.

"Really they have some advantages - their level of organization and cohesion.... Everyone knows who is indigenous, and everyone, especially the armed groups, know what is indigenous territory," says Jess Ramrez, adviser for indigenous affairs to the provincial government of Antioquia. "When you see an Indian, you know he is a bearer of this decision to be neutral."

The war in Colombia may be the longest-running guerrilla war in Latin America, but the indigenous communities look at their history on a much larger scale, and see their neutrality as essential to the survival of their culture.

"We were 10 million indigenous in Colombia when the Spanish arrived. Today, we are 800,000," says Caizamo. "Neutrality is our space for life in the midst of this war."

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