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Colombians pay the price for U.S. "aid"
The stories of the dispossessed

Review by Tristin Adie | July 22, 2005 | Page 13

Alfred Molano, The Dispossessed. Haymarket Books, 2005, 240 pages $12.

IN 2000, when former President Bill Clinton initiated Plan Colombia--an aid package aimed at strengthening the Colombian military in its war with rebel groups--he set in motion an ongoing level of U.S. assistance that now totals more than $4 billion over the past five years.

This money has gone to purchase high-tech military equipment and to strengthen an army that has by far the worst record of human rights abuses in the hemisphere. Though Clinton, and the Bush administration after him, have paid lip service to the importance of safeguarding human rights along with this aid, each willingly turned a blind eye to the collusion of the Colombian military with paramilitary death squads who terrorize rural civilian populations in order to seize land in guerrilla-controlled areas.

The terror inflicted on civilians by both death squads and their friends in the military has naturally led millions of people to flee their homes and villages. Some 3 million people have been displaced in Colombia since 1985--so that it now has the second-largest internal refugee population in the world.

And despite tomes of evidence compiled by human rights groups that this terror is approved from the very top of the Colombian government, Congress just voted to approve the Bush administration's request for another $700 million for the Colombian military.

The broad outlines of the conflict in Colombia--billions of dollars in American aid pumped into a military that knowingly butchers and terrorizes innocent people--are enough to make anyone angry. But we rarely get to hear the individual stories of the people whose lives are governed by these outlines.

Which is why Alfredo Molano's The Dispossessed should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the impact of U.S. foreign policy on ordinary people. Molano's book--which reached the top 10 list of best-selling books in Colombia when it was first published there in 2001--has been recently published in English for the first time by Haymarket Books.

It includes seven harrowing stories of people displaced by massacres, assassinations and violence between the paramilitaries and guerrillas in their villages. Those telling the stories range widely in age, experience and geographical location.

We hear the story of Toñito, a young boy forced to flee his home after his entire family is murdered by paramilitaries. After watching scores of bodies float down the river near his village in a fruitless effort to locate his parents, Toñito heads for the city of Cartagena.

Here he sleeps in the corner of a one-room shack with a young woman who has also been displaced by violence. He attempts to find food for the woman and her baby, until the baby dies of hunger--prompting the woman to sell her shack and move on.

Toñito ends up living with a gang of other children on the street, sniffing glue to dampen his hunger and trying to keep away from beatings by police and death squad members. He finally leaves the streets after police set he and his friends on fire while they sleep in a sewer pipe--done at the behest of a local business owner bothered by their presence in the neighborhood. Only Toñito survives to tell the tale.

We also hear the story of Osiris, an older woman who endured the killings of multiple members of her family over the course of her lifetime--first watching her husband and his cousin shot to death by paramilitaries in front of her and her young children, then losing her son several years later to murderous police, and finally learning of her daughter's "disappearance" by police two days later.

Osiris herself is forced to move from her village after police perversely "open an investigation" into her role in her children's murders, and after more and more of her neighbors turn up dead as well. Like Toñito, Osiris ends up in an urban slum, where she shares a one-room shack with 18 other displaced people.

The Dispossessed is an extraordinarily moving book, telling, as Eduardo Galleano wrote, of "Colombia's pain, in a language that has more colors than the rainbow." But it also explains the context of the violence.

Thanks to a foreword by Aviva Chomsky, an introduction by Lance Selfa and an appendix by Mabel Gonzalez Bustelo, even readers new to the conflict in Colombia will gain a clear understanding of why ordinary people have been forced to pay the price for a dirty war financed with American dollars.

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