Tourism offers hope for residents of former FARC bastion in central Colombia
By Irene Escudero
La Uribe, Colombia, Feb 22 (EFE).- The sound of bomb blasts and the trading of gunfire between army soldiers and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels is now a distant memory in the mountains surrounding the central town of La Uribe, where the peaceful chirping of birds now greets tourists enjoying a white-water adventure.
A historical stronghold of leftist guerrillas, that area of stunning natural beauty and hidden waterfalls has become a new tourist destination whose attractions include excursions through the Guape River Canyon on doughnut-shaped tubes.
Oscar Forero, a 25-year-old resident of La Uribe, works as a tubing guide and helps prevent tourists from drifting into fast water or gives them a push when they get stuck.
It would have been unthinkable prior to 2017 for tourists to visit the canyon, whose steep walls soar to a height of more than 100 meters (330 feet) and contain caves in some parts that are home to oilbirds known for their high-pitched clicks, squawks and shrieks.
“La Uribe isn’t just waterfalls. La Uribe is history,” Forero said of the devastation that the armed conflict inflicted on the town, the majority of whose 18,000 inhabitants were victims.
That municipality in Meta Department is known in Colombia as FARC country because it was part of a demilitarized zone that then-President Andres Pastrana conceded to the guerrillas in 1998 in preparation for an ultimately unsuccessful peace process.
It also is located just a few kilometers from Casa Verde, a giant FARC complex that the army bombed in 1990 in a bid to strike a crushing blow to the group’s top command.
That operation, however, failed to achieve its objectives because the members of the FARC’s secretariat were able to escape and retaliate with a violent series of attacks.
Atanael Rojas, one of the first people to settle in La Uribe, said that operation was tantamount to “throwing a rock at a hornets’ nest and having all the hornets scattered about.”
“They created havoc there and knocked down the room where they were hiding. They spread out all over (Meta) and that was when they went down” to the eastern llanos (tropical plains), the 82-year-old cattle rancher told Efe.
Rojas said he and many other residents of that region also suffered indiscriminate persecution at the hands of the armed forces, adding that he was accused of funding or arming the guerrillas and held for 18 days before being released for lack of evidence.
“The most difficult situation was when (former President) Alvaro Uribe, in his eagerness to eradicate the rebels, pledged during his campaign a guerrilla-free Colombia,” he recalled.
The local population ended up “like a soccer ball; one side would grab it and kick it here, then the other kicked it to the other, and that’s the situation we were in. And what could you do, when the only tool you had was a machete or a hoe to work the land?” Rojas said.
People were forced to take refuge in their homes when the fighting started. “You’d be eating breakfast, having lunch or dinner, when ‘boom,’ there’d be a blast and you’d suddenly have to leave your plate behind and jump for cover. And we all lived like that,” he recalled.
Forero was very young at that time, but he remembers having to flee to the fincas (rural properties) of his friends “and hearing helicopters flying overhead and bombs all the time,” or guerrillas coming and telling them that fighting would start in the town the next day.
It was therefore a watershed moment for him when 300 guerrillas came down from the western mountains in 2016, rifle in hand, en route to Mesetas, where a Territorial Space for Training and Reincorporation (ETCR) had been set up by the government to transition demobilized FARC rebels to civilian life.
“Thanks to the peace process, tourism started up, people began visiting this town because they want to know its history and its tourist attractions,” said Forero, who is a member of an organization known as Corpuribe made up of young people seeking a brighter future and an end to the stigma associated with La Uribe. EFE