Colombian village formerly controlled by rebels now empty

Monday, February 2, 2004

UNION PENEYA, Colombia -- Christmas trees still adorn living rooms, clothes spill out of flung-open drawers, testifying to the haste in which nearly 1,500 villagers fled this southern Colombian town in early January as the army closed in.

Rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, ordered everyone to leave the town on Jan. 4, said Antonio Burgos, 83, the only remaining resident in Union Peneya.

Gen. Martin Orlando Carreno, the new commander of the Colombian Army, visited the town on Saturday, where he commended his troops for taking control of a region that for decades has been a rebel stronghold.

The soldiers have been patrolling the town's deserted streets since they took Union Peneya last month. They want the villagers to return, but many are worried rebels may yet retake the town and punish those who violated their evacuation order.

Fearing for their lives, the townsfolk fled the village and headed for nearby settlements in the steamy jungles of Caqueta state, according to Burgos. He said there have been previous forced evacuations.

"This has happened before, but never for this long," he said as he lounged in front of his modest home in Union Peneya, now nothing but a ghost town. He said he felt too old to leave with the others.

FARC stronghold

In Colombia's 40-year civil war, Caqueta state has traditionally been a stronghold of the FARC, the nation's largest rebel group which has fought four decades of war against the Colombian government. In Union Peneya, dead FARC rebels even hold a special section in the town's cemetery, with 25 marble tombstones carrying the guerrillas' noms de guerre.

"If we want to triumph, and enjoy life, we help the FARC," reads one inscription.

But under the leadership of hard-line President Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian army has taken the offensive and launched a wave of operations in areas like Caqueta. The army is determined to wrest control of rebel territory to deprive the guerrillas of a recruitment base, destroy the drug crops financing their operations and convince people they are better off living under the state.

"This is part of the plan to attack the structure of the FARC in its core areas, where they generate their power to combat," Carreno said in an interview with the Associated Press.

In a rural area not far from Union Peneya, soldiers discovered a FARC arsenal filled with weapons, radios and cash. In Florencia, Caqueta's provincial capital, Carreno proudly displayed the seized goods to the president, who was holding a community meeting in the town and pledged to hold firm against the rebels.

"It's not easy work, but let me reaffirm the commitment we have to stop these criminals, so we can witness the return of the peace and tranquility that these people deserve," Uribe said.

The economy of Union Peneya, 240 miles southwest of Bogota, Colombia's capital, revolved around the production of coca paste, the primary ingredient in cocaine. Producers of the paste had to pay taxes to the FARC. The FARC even drew up its own currency for all transactions.

dealing with coca paste. The bills -- photocopies of Colombia's official peso signed by the "FARC treasury" -- reportedly could be cashed at "rebel banks."

These days, the once bustling town is still, its silence interrupted only by the occasional squawk of a farm animal or the footsteps of a soldier wandering the streets.

No one knows when, or if, the residents will come back or if they will join the ranks of Colombia's more than 2 million people who have been displaced from their homes because of the war.

Gen. Carreno said the townspeople should not be afraid to come back because of possible rebel retribution. He vowed to hold the town and maintain a steady military presence here.

"We are just waiting for everyone to return," he said.

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