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CNNís Steve Nettleton on the faces of civil war in Colombia

September 1, 2000
Posted at: 1:05 a.m. EDT

(CNN) Ė Colombiaís nearly 40-year-old civil war has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and left 35,000 people dead in the past 10 years. Many others have been forced to join ranks with the paramilitaries and guerillas in a war that is now being financed by drug money. Colombian President Andres Pastrana has vowed to end the conflict by launching "Plan Colombia." The initiative calls for $7.5 billion over three years to combat narcotics trafficking and civil unrest in the country.

Steve Nettleton is a correspondent for CNN Interactive who recently traveled across Colombia and met with combatants, officials and civilians. Nettleton is filing field reports for CNN.comís in-depth special on "Colombia: War Without End."

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Steve Nettleton, and welcome.

Steve Nettleton: Thank you.

Chat Moderator: You traveled throughout Colombia. What were some of the events and images that are most memorable?

"It's a sense of desperation that sticks out in my mind. In some cases, villagers even begged me to find some help for them back here in the United States, some way to get the money or get out of their towns. I think that's what haunted me the most."
— Steve Nettleton

Steve Nettleton: I would say the faces of the people, really. When we went to some of these remote villages in extreme corners of the country, it was the stories of the people we talked to that really struck a chord in me. A lot of these villages are very poor. They live in fear every day that one group or another of the paramilitaries or guerillas will come in and execute them, evict them or make them go live in refugee camps.

It's a sense of desperation that sticks out in my mind. In some cases, villagers even begged me to find some help for them back here in the United States, some way to get the money or get out of their towns. I think that's what haunted me the most.

Question from Liberal: Steve Nettleton, does the U.S. government understand that it is interfering in a 160-year-old civil war in Columbia -- a war that is complicated and unpredictable?

Steve Nettleton: I can't really speak for the U.S. government. But I would agree that the war is a complicated one. For nearly 40 years, the country has seen a lot of conflict between guerilla groups and, most recently, paramilitary groups and drug traffickers. The front lines seem to change constantly. They've been approaching the cities more and more, absorbing more and more of the population into the conflict, even though the vast majority of the population wishes to stay out of it.

Question from MountainMonk: About what percentage of the countryside is under rebel control?

Steve Nettleton: There are different reports on that. I've seen figures that say that the FARC -- Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- control about 40 percent of the country. The government gave the FARC a slice of the country the size of Switzerland to encourage them to come to the peace table.

It has also offered three cities to the second-largest guerilla army, the ELN, or National Liberation Army. This has triggered a lot of unrest in that area, in the southern Bolivar department of Colombia. It's very difficult to say exactly how much is under control.

Aside from strictly military control, there is also control by intimidation and threatening civilians. In some cities, you see this done through assassination, extortion and kidnapping. And even though they may not militarily control that city or area, they maintain control through terror. The right-wing paramilitaries also do the same.

Question from Are: Don't you think that the United Nations has to intervene in Colombia? The guerillas have already crossed borders into Peru and Venezuela.

Steve Nettleton: The United Nations has made it a policy not to get involved as peacekeepers in conflicts where they're not invited. I seriously doubt that either Colombia or the United States wants to see U.N. peacekeepers roaming the jungles of Colombia. For one thing, it would put troops from other countries in the middle of a cross fire between armed groups that already have declared they don't want any outside intervention.


It seems, from what humanitarian aid organizations have said to me, that more humanitarian aid would be welcome, certainly by the people who are displaced or suffering terrible poverty. But few believe that simply inserting U.N. peacekeepers into this conflict would bring an end to the war.

Question from CharliGirl-CNN: How are people protecting their children?

Steve Nettleton: Well, children, unfortunately, are becoming more and more caught up in the war, both as victims and as participants. In some cities, there is tremendous pressure for them to join guerilla or paramilitary groups.

They also simply have trouble in their personal lives -- in choosing whom to date, whom to fall in love with. If they fall in love with a member of the army, they are targeted by the paramilitaries. If they fall in love with a member of the guerillas, they are a target of the army.

Often, parents simply want to send their children away to places where they do not experience that pressure, where they are not put under that pressure. A lot of the people I spoke to expressed their concern for their children, because children who grow up in that conflict -- evicted from their homes or watching gunfights in the street -- could end up continuing the cycle and continuing the war.

Question from Sharonelle: Steve Nettleton, please explain who the right-wing paramilitaries are.

Steve Nettleton: The paramilitaries were born in the 1980s. One of the first groups was called MAS. This is a Spanish acronym for "death to kidnappers." This was a group designed to protect landowners, particularly in northern Colombia, from drug-related kidnappings and guerilla kidnappings.

Over the years, many more groups were born and recently they were brought under a single group called the AUC, or the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. Today, this group is pushing southward through Colombia to purge the country of guerillas. In the process, they have been blamed for most of the human rights violations in the country.

Human rights groups have accused the Colombian army of direct and passive involvement in many of these atrocities. The command of the Colombian army says it is trying to clean its ranks of any collaborators, but human rights groups say they have not done enough.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us?

Steve Nettleton: I think the people who talk about the war in Colombia and talk about the war against drugs, the civil war -- which Colombian civilians choose not to call a "civil war" but a war against civilians -- the people who talk about these things need to see, either in person or through the media in some fashion, the lives of the people who are affected.

There is incredible pain and incredible inspiration among the people of Colombia. The people have so much hope for their families and futures and have rich stories to tell about themselves and their families. Unfortunately, their stories are tied to a war that has engulfed their nation.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Steve Nettleton.

Steve Nettleton: Thank you for listening.

Steve Nettleton joined the Colombia Chat series via telephone from CNN Center in Atlanta, Ga. provided a typist for Mr. Nettleton. The above is an edited transcript of that chat, which took place on Friday, September 1, 2000.

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