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Civilians stuck in crossfire of Colombia's civil war

Civil war has gripped Colombia for decades. One of the flashpoints is the Cauca region in the south. The residents there are now peacefully confronting both the military and the guerrillas in towns like Toribio.

Merly Troches has a friendly smile when she talks about the horror in her hometown of Toribio. Her daily life is marked by shootings and grenade and bomb attacks. The house of the 29-year-old lies just 100 meters from the local police station. A stone's throw away, police with submachine guns have entrenched themselves behind sandbags. The radical left-wing FARC guerrillas attack the police post on a regular basis.

Merly Troches in front of her house. Fotograf: Nils Naumann Ort: Kolumbien Ich trete hiermit die Rechte im Zusammenhang mit meiner Berichterstattung aus Kolumbien an die DW ab.

Merly Troches does not want to move away despite the violence

Merly carries her youngest son, who is just 20 days old. "Luckily he was born after the attack with the bus bomb," she says. Merly points to the door of her house - grenade shrapnel has pierced it. The walls of the living room are pocked with bullet holes and the frames of family photos are splintered.

Bus bomb attack

In the middle of last year, a FARC fighter tried to drive a bus loaded with explosives into the police station. The bomb exploded just before reaching its intended target. So the massive, dark green concrete police bunker in the center of the Andean town withstood the attack largely undamaged.

But the homes around the bunker were covered in soot and ash - all that's left of most of the buildings is their frames. Three people, a police officer and two civilians, died in the blast. There were over a hundred injured. The attack happened on a market day - Toribio was full of visitors.

Merly's husband was also wounded in the bomb attack. Their 12-year-old and nine-year-old sons survived the attack physically unharmed. But they've been traumatized.

"The kids are afraid to go out onto the street," Merly says. "It's happened more than once, that they've been playing outside and suddenly shootings broke out with the guerrillas."

Civilians under fire

In the past few years, there have been more than 600 attacks by the guerrillas in Toribio. At the same time, the police and military presence has been increased in the region. Yet that has not brought security to the people.

"On the contrary, there are more problems now," Merly says. "Because the guerrillas attack the security forces, and we are between the two fronts."

Merly could leave the region, but she doesn't want to move away.

"We have only our small house in Toribio and otherwise nothing," she says. "Besides, it's just as dangerous in many other places."

And so Merly and her family will try to stick it out in Toribio. She hopes for peace negotiations.

"The militarization that we've seen here in the past years is not a solution," Merly says. "Peace can only be created through dialogue."

Police stands in front of destroyed homes in Toribio Fotograf: Nils Naumann Ort: Kolumbien Ich trete hiermit die Rechte im Zusammenhang mit meiner Berichterstattung aus Kolumbien an die DW ab.

The police come under regular attack by guerrillas in Toribio

Protests against guerrillas and military

Abel Coucue has also had enough of the war. He explains with tears in his eyes that he lost his 11-year-old daughter just under a year ago.

"She was playing in front of our house when a grenade from one of the guerrillas exploded," he says. A piece of shrapnel hit her in the heart, killing her immediately. Abel's wife has left the region. But he decided to stay.

Abel Coucue Fotograf: Nils Naumann Ort: Kolumbien Ich trete hiermit die Rechte im Zusammenhang mit meiner Berichterstattung aus Kolumbien an die DW ab.

Abel wants to force FARC and the military out through peaceful means

"We have to defend our mother earth," he says. "And with peaceful means."

Most of the residents of the region surrounding Toribio are Indios like Abel. And they no longer want to wait for an agreement between the guerrillas and the government. The Indio association CRIC has demanded that the belligerents leave their territory. The Indios want to provide security for the region with their own unarmed security patrol.

In the past months, Abel and his fellow activists from CRIC have brought attention to their difficult situation through several spectacular campaigns. In July, around 1,000 Indios occupied a military post on top of a mountain above Toribio. Symbolically, they carried away several soldiers and destroyed their shelters. The occupation lasted a few days and was finally broken up by a special police unit.

At the same time, around 3,000 Indios marched in the direction of the guerrilla positions. They delivered them a signed petition which called on the rebels to withdraw from the Indios' regions. The guerrillas lost their goals a long time ago, according to Abel.

"For them, it's not about justice anymore," he says. "It's about economic interests and their share of power."

Drugs, money, weapons

The guerrillas are living above all off the drug trade. Colombia's southwest is one of the most important drug cultivation regions in the country. Coca, poppy and marijuana are all grown here. There are also the laboratories that create cocaine and heroine.

From this region, the drugs are shipped abroad. The drug trade and civil war feed off each other. And so it's doubtful that the guerrillas are ready to leave such an important region and forgo their profits from the drug trade.

Waiting for dialogue

The Colombian government also does not think very highly of a de-militarization of the region. The military will not give a centimeter, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recently said. The fear is too big, that the guerrillas will use the vacuum to expand their sphere of influence.

Demonstration of indios against the civil war Fotograf: Nils Naumann Ort: Kolumbien Ich trete hiermit die Rechte im Zusammenhang mit meiner Berichterstattung aus Kolumbien an die DW ab.

Demonstrations by the Indios have brought national attention to their plight

At the very least, the spectacular demonstrations by the Indios have put the situation of the people in the region on the political agenda. President Santos personally travelled to hold talks with Indio representatives in Toribio. Now a round table - with representatives from politics, the Indio community and the security forces - is supposed to help improve the humanitarian situation for the people in the region. There have been no concrete results so far.

Merly, Abel and many of the other civilians in the civil war-torn region are hoping for a successful end to the peace negotiations between the government and the guerrillas. Those talks are scheduled to begin in Norway in October.

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