Colleagues fear for safety of aid workers

By on March 1, 1999
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Douglas

Toronto

Eleanor Douglas boarded a plane to Colombia Feb. 2 fearing for the safety of four kidnapped friends and the collapse of the peace process aimed at ending the bloody 34-year-old civil war.

“These people are my friends,” said Ms. Douglas, development co-ordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Primate’s World Relief Development Fund. “I’ve worked with them a lot.” The four human rights workers – Jairo Bedoya, Olga Rodas, Jorge Salazar and Claudia Tamayo – were taken from their office in Medellin Jan. 28 by Colombia’s most feared paramilitary group. Their abduction came a day after two workers from another Colombian human rights organization were hauled off a bus and killed.

Ms. Douglas, who lived in Colombia for 20 years before returning to Canada less than three years ago, is a member of the board of directors of the Medellin-based Popular Training Institute, where the four worked. The United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), the paramilitary group headed by warlord Carlos Castano, said Feb. 4 it would free two of the human rights workers but hold the other two as “prisoners of war.” It accused the pair of belonging to leftist guerrilla groups.

“I know the people very well and I know they’re not rebel sympathizers,” said Ms. Douglas in a Journal interview before leaving for Colombia. “In fact this organization has gone to extreme lengths to publicly declare itself non-violent.” She noted that part of the work of the IPC involves teaching children conflict resolution in schools.

A non-governmental organization, the IPC is a well-respected human rights monitoring organization in Colombia’s Antioquia state. Last year the office prepared detailed maps “showing exactly where the guerrilla groups and the paramilitary groups are located,” said Ms. Douglas. One of those kidnapped, Claudia Tamayo, municipal program director for the IPC, took part in a seminar in Sherbrooke, Que., last fall and visited with church groups in Ottawa and Toronto. Her whereabouts and those of the other three were unknown.

Last May, Ms. Douglas, a former chair of CUSO, was sent to Colombia as an Anglican Church representative on the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America after soldiers raided the offices of the Inter-Congregational Commission for Justice and Peace. They carted away files and examined computer databases while forcing Roman Catholic nuns and lay staff to kneel.

“The alarm is real,” said Ms. Douglas, adding that several human rights workers and journalists have left the country after being intimidated. “The paramilitary are clearly trying to force the hand of the government to recognize it as a political force and negotiate,” she said. “But the problem with that, at this particular juncture, is if the (President Andres) Pastrana government cedes to that right now. Then, I fear that any possibility of continuing a dialogue with guerrillas, especially the FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) will be put back 10 years.”

While in Colombia, Douglas was to meet with representatives of churches and NGOs to discuss what can be done internationally to help the “almost derailed” peace process, she said. “We’re trying to think of something that goes beyond just denouncing every single assassination and asking us all to send letters to the (Colombian) government.

“We feel it has gone beyond the scope of the Colombian government to actually resolve the situation,” she said.

Canada could play a role in the peace process by creating a “safe place” for discussions among all the players, she said. “A place where people can honestly speak about this situation and look at the responsibility of the consuming countries, ” including banking laws, money laundering and crop substitution for Colombia.

Five years ago Colombia didn’t produce heroin but it now provides about one-half of the heroin sold in the U.S., said Ms. Douglas. All the money that’s gone into trying to repress the production of drugs in Colombia hasn’t worked and consumer countries themselves may have to develop new strategies, she added.

The latest kidnappings and murders by paramilitary groups under Castano’s leadership adds to Colombia’s reputation as one of the most violent countries in the hemisphere. Thousands of alleged rebel sympathizers have been killed and hundreds of human rights workers, labour activists and others assassinated over the last two decades. Last year alone, Colombia reported some 2,300 abductions.

According to news reports from Colombia, the two women, Olga Rodas and Claudia Tamayo, kidnapped by the Colombian rebels, were released unharmed on Feb. 8.

The two men remain captive.

Art Babych is a freelance writer based on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Author

  • Art is the former editor of Crosstalk, the newspaper of the Anglican diocese of Ottawa.