Safe now, rebel zone residents fear future

Published Jan. 17, 2002|Updated Sept. 2, 2005

Colombia's fragile peace process is back on track and leftist rebels get to keep their vast safe haven. For now.

And while residents of the rebel-held zone were relieved at the rescue of the peace talks, which resumed Wednesday, for many it only postponed their fears of the day the rebels will leave and townspeople will be at the mercy of rightist paramilitaries.

"We know it has to end someday. We might as well get it over with," said Chavela Fajardo, waiting to use the public phone in a shaded square of this bustling ranching town.

San Vicente del Caguan is the nerve center of the safe haven one-third the size of Florida that was granted to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, three years ago to get peace talks going to end the rebels' 38-year-old war against the state.

The government pulled its army, police and judges out of five municipalities straddling two provinces, and rebels with AK-47s moved in. No one asked the residents of the towns whether they would be willing to host the rebels, and at first they were angry.

But as the peace talks dragged on, residents became accustomed _ sometimes begrudgingly _ to the presence of fatigues-clad rebels eating ice cream in their plaza, shopping in their markets and drinking in their bars.

And they welcomed the end to skirmishes between rebels and the army and paramilitaries.

But they are careful talking about the situation, giving cursory answers to questions about life under the rebels. It's not safe, said one man who, like many, refused to give his name.

Fear of death squads

The rebels have few real supporters in the zone they control, but residents say outsiders have labeled them guerrilla sympathizers simply for accepting their presence.

Residents of San Vicente say they fear for their lives when they go to nearby towns where right wing paramilitary groups are strong; several people have been killed. Their worst fear is that if the peace process fails, the paramilitaries will move in and kill those who "collaborated" with the rebels.

Throughout the ups and downs of the peace process, San Vicente's hospital has noted a high incidence of psychosomatic illness.

The town of 80,000 has no psychologists "so we treat the stress in regular doctor visits," hospital director Fernando Rivas said. Patients often complain of unspecified pains or headaches that have no clinical explanation, he added.

When the peace process plunged into its most severe crisis last week, anxiety peaked.

Faced with a seemingly insurmountable impasse in the talks, President Andres Pastrana on Jan. 9 gave the rebels 48 hours to abandon the zone. Government troops massed on the borders ready to move in.

U.N. envoy James LeMoyne persuaded the president to give him two days to mediate, but the resulting proposal from the rebels was "not satisfactory" to Pastrana and he once again started the 48-hour countdown for the troops to retake the zone.

Many residents of San Vicente decided to ride out the crisis by visiting friends or family outside the zone, fearing death squads would follow on the heels of the soldiers, who often collaborate with paramilitary groups.

"We were so afraid," said Fajardo. "We were constantly tuned into the radio or television to see the latest from Los Pozos," the hamlet 20 miles outside town where a negotiation headquarters was built.

She says she didn't leave because "this is my home; what can I do?"

In the end international mediators managed to squeeze a concession from the rebels just five hours before the deadline, the process was saved and Pastrana told his troops to stand down.

More to come

Even with the resolution of the latest impasse, the rebel enclave faces a routine expiration date on Sunday.

Pastrana, who ordered troops to remain on high alert around the zone, says he will extend the rebels' lease on the area if the rebels agree to a timetable for talks on a bilateral cease-fire and an end to the FARC's lucrative kidnapping business.

Residents are skeptical.

A driver with a transport service that shuttles people from San Vicente to nearby towns outside the zone likens the talks to a chess game. The residents are stuck in the middle, he says, with little idea of the rules or the objective.