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War Uproots Isolated Bush Negroes in South America

July 19, 1989

ST. LAURENT, French Guiana (AP) _ Along the muddy Maroni River deep in the Amazon rain forest, thousands of refugees wait for an obscure civil war to end in neighboring Suriname.

They are Bush Negroes, descendants of West African slaves who fled into the jungle after Dutch colonists brought them across the Atlantic hundreds of years ago to work the plantations.

From the late 1600s to the early 1800s, thousands of slaves fought off the settlers, destroying plantations, freeing other slaves and vanishing into the vast tropical hinterland.

Isolated like many Indian tribes of the Amazon region, the Bush Negroes have their own language and culture.

″For three centuries, the Bush Afro-Americans have been a nation within a nation,″ Arthur Hailey, author of ″Roots,″ wrote in the introduction to a history of the Bush Negroes. ″They have remained independent and faithful to African traditions like no other group in the New World.″

Today, they flee a three-year war between Suriname’s National Army and the Jungle Commando, a rebel group of about 200 whose leader, Ronny Brunswijk, is a Bush Negro from the Mongo Tapu village in eastern Suriname.

Most Bush Negroes come from thatched hut villages in eastern Suriname, where they exist by fishing, hunting, planting crops and gathering wild nuts and fruits.

They number about 65,000 in six tribal nations - the Aukaner, Ndjuka, Saramaka, Paramaka, Matuari and Kwinti.

Since the fighting erupted in 1986 in Suriname, hundreds of Bush Negroes have been killed and many villages destroyed. The military accuses Bush Negroes of being rebels or of aiding them.

More than 7,000 Bush Negroes and hundreds of Amerindians have crossed the Maroni River to camps near St. Laurent in this French territory.

About 10,000 others have fled to Suriname’s capital, Paramaribo.

They tell similar stories of the army burning their villages and killing their children, husbands and wives.

″The military burned my village, my hut, with everything in it. Every day it’s bang-bang-bang,″ said Swanita, the mother of seven children.

Most Bush Negroes aren’t involved in the war and say they just want to live in peace.

Although Ronny Brunswijk is one of them, many Bush Negroes, including his brother John, are baffled by him.

″I don’t know what he wants; he never told me,″ said John, 25, who is chief of the Ndjukas and came to the Acarouany camp with his wife and two children 2 1/2 years ago. ″But I’m not like him. I don’t like fighting.″

Ronny, 27, is a Cuban-trained soldier who was the personal bodyguard of Cmdr. Desi Bouterse of Suriname’s armed forces until being fired in 1986.

Details of their falling out are unknown, but the war is seen as a personal feud between Brunswijk and the 42-year-old Bouterse.

After he was fired, Brunswijk is said to have taken arms and ammunition with him. He robbed banks and gave the money to his people, gaining the reputation of a Robin Hood. But in June, 1986, Bouterse’s army attacked Brunswijk’s village, and the Jungle Commando was born.

The refugees are shunned in French Guiana, a land of 80,000 people on the northern shoulder of South America. In St. Laurent, with a population of 7,000, many blame them for a rise in drug trafficking, robbery and murder.

The refugees live outside St. Laurent in four camps, each run by about 20 French military police. To leave even for a few hours, they need permission and are transported on military trucks.

″The refugees live in good conditions and have plenty of food and medical care,″ said Guido Coosemans, head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees office in St. Laurent. ″But the problem is that the camps are more or less closed camps, and there is no possibility of employment.″

Many view the Bush Negroes, also known as Maroons, as primitie because of their isolated existence.

″Maroons are the people who have the most problems right now. If they come to Paramaribo, they get the lowest paid jobs and live in the worst conditions,″ said Gloria Leurs, of the human-rights organization Mooiwana ’86, named after a Surinamese village where at least 35 refugees were killed in an army raid Nov. 29, 1986.

The French government is waiting to see if a peace agreement, signed in early June between the government and Brunswijk, takes hold before repatriating the refugees to Suriname.

The refugees are wary.

″We don’t believe the army wants peace,″ said 27-year-old Nathaniel, the ″granman,″ or chief, of the Acarouany refugee camp, which has 1,428 refugees. ″If we go back, they will kill us.″

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