'Adopt' Ex - Combatants for Work

Trying to heal the scars of four decades of civil war, the government urged Colombian businessmen at home and in the United States to either ``adopt a soldier'' injured in the fighting or provide work to rebel deserters.

Defense Minister Martha Lucia Ramirez gathered hundreds of businessmen and disabled soldiers in a downtown Bogota hotel late Tuesday to tell them it was every Colombian's duty to help bring peace to this South American nation.

``There must be a general understanding that a solution to the internal conflict is not solely military,'' she said in a written statement. ``For that reason, it is urgent that everybody participates to defeat the enemies of democracy, freedom and security.''

Colombia's 39-year-old civil war, which claims an estimated 3,500 lives each year, pits the rebels against the government and outlawed paramilitary groups.

Ramirez outlined two key ways executives can lend a hand -- taking an injured soldier or police officer into their care, or assisting guerrillas who have laid down their arms to rejoin society.

The defense minister particularly called on Colombians living abroad to get involved in the healing process by donating funds. Colombians in the United States send billions of dollars to relatives back home every year.

``We need help to move forward,'' said Pvt. Caldas Vargas, 23, a member of a special anti-guerrilla battalion who lost a leg to a mine during a firefight six months ago in a nature reserve in central Colombia.

Vargas, who joined the army at 17, praised the government initiative but said he has yet to receive financial aid enabling him to recover emotionally, learn a new skill and find a new job.

``I am still waiting to see what help I might receive,'' he said. ``I just hope this leads to something.''

Jairo Gutierrez, director of lingerie manufacturer Moyatex Ltda., said he was willing to contribute, but cautioned the program would be difficult given the country's current economic slump.

``We have all suffered from the violence, but these people more than others,'' he said, pointing to a row of crippled soldiers sitting behind him. ``But the government should also be prepared to provide tax breaks to companies that employ the disabled.''

President Alvaro Uribe's first move upon coming to power nearly a year ago was to impose a ``war tax'' on the wealthy to help finance the buildup of Colombia's army and police. The new tax found support among some businesses tired of the terrorist threat, but many acknowledged it would be a strain.

Ramirez, the defense minister, said donated funds would also be distributed among families who lost loved ones in the war and would help pay for reeducation programs for rebels who renounce violence.

Gutierrez, however, said bringing lifelong guerrillas into the workforce be difficult. ``One would have to start entirely from scratch,'' he said.

Hundreds of rebels have turned themselves in this year in response to an aggressive campaign by Uribe's administration to entice fighters to desert, find a job and build a family.

[Source: Asssociated Press, NYT, June 25, 2003]

DDHH in Colombia

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This document has been published on 26jun03 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.