No happy ending for the tribes

Observations on being kidnapped in Columbia by <strong>Alice O'Keeffe</strong>

If Matthew Scott, the British gap-year traveller kidnapped by Colombian guerrillas last month, hasn't yet sold the rights for his story to Hollywood (it has just appeared at length in the Daily Telegraph), an offer surely can't be far off. With a dashing combination of heroism and British sang-froid, Scott fled his captors and wandered the jungle for 12 days before being rescued by an indigenous tribe. And true to Hollywood tradition, while the white hero triumphed, a less glamorous fate awaited his indigenous supporting cast.

The death toll is rising among Colombia's tribes as their territories are consumed by a growing civil conflict, supported by substantial military aid from the US and Britain.

Scott's destination on his ill-fated trek was the Lost City, constructed by the ancient Tairona civilisation in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The region is still home to the Taironas' descendants, the Kogui, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo tribes, who have struggled to protect their peaceable culture and the territory they call "the heart of the world" amid the bloodshed engulfing the rest of the country. In the harsh terrain of the Sierra, indigenous communities have historically felt protected, but armed groups increasingly make incursions into the area, drawn by the untapped wealth of its natural resources.

Colombia reacted dramatically to the kidnap of Scott's party of eight tourists. Eager to reassure the world that the government is in control of what the US-friendly president Alvaro Uribe terms a "war on terrorism", the country deployed 2,000 troops and nine Black Hawk helicopters in a rescue mission. They uncovered nothing. Scott reappeared of his own accord; his seven companions are yet to be found. The army search teams did kill at least four suspected "guerrilleros" and detained a further 20, but then had to admit that they had targeted the wrong group.

The army has not shown the same determination to protect the tribespeople, who, says Amnesty International, "continue to be the main victims of violations of human rights". In the Sierra Nevada, 200 of the estimated 24,000 indigenous inhabitants have been killed in the conflict, 44 in the past year alone. "Armed groups enter our villages," Jaime Arias, governor of the Kankuamo tribe, told a Colombian newspaper. "They come to the houses, take people out and kill them. Other times they put roadblocks on the paths, kidnap the indigenous people and they later appear dead."

A spokesman for the Arhuaco tribe told me: "If the indigenous people speak against the government, they say we are guerrillas and they kill us . . . the army works with the illegal right-wing armed groups. In the past, indigenous leaders who raised these issues in meetings with the government have afterwards been killed in retribution. Now we cannot criticise." At a recent "council on indigenous security", Marta LucIa RamIrez, the defence minister, insisted that the safety of tribespeople was a priority and that illegal paramilitary and guerrilla organisations were responsible for the killings. She announced plans to install a military base on tribal territory.

But an Arhuaco spokesman told me: "If we arm our population, how can we live in peace? If we participate in their violence we become prisoners of the government, and they will have power over our tribes."

In Colombia's increasingly heated political climate - President Uribe recently accused human rights activists of serving terrorism and of hiding "like cowards behind the flag of human rights" - the possibility of a non-military solution in the Sierra Nevada seems remote. It was great to see Matthew Scott reunited with his family, but it is hard to imagine that the story of his indigenous saviours will have such a happy Hollywood ending.

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