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Foreign human rights workers a presence in strife-torn Colombia

September 8, 1997

SAN PABLO, Colombia (AP) _ With her pale complexion and light brown hair, Tessa Mackenzie stands out when she strolls through this steamy river town. But the English human rights worker doesn’t mind.

Getting noticed is her job. She works in Colombia’s Magdalena Medio region, where political murder is common as a backdrop to the war between leftist rebels, the military and landowner-backed private armies.

As one of eight foreigners working as Peace Brigades volunteers in this country, the 27-year-old Mackenzie tags along with Colombian human rights activists in hopes her presence will help keep them alive.

The idea is that politically motivated ``death squads″ will shy away from attacks that might cause the death of a foreign human rights activist and bring international pressure for a government crackdown.

No Colombian rights worker under Peace Brigades watch has been killed since the group arrived in 1994.

``It’s a matter of being present and allowing Colombian human rights workers the space they need to do their jobs,″ said Tomas Aramburo, a 35-year-old Spaniard who is a Peace Brigades worker.

But the volunteers can’t be everywhere. At least eight Colombian activists have been killed this year in unsolved murders, and death threats have forced others to flee abroad.

The London-based Peace Brigades also has volunteers in the Balkans, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Haiti and Mexico for what are typically one-year stints.

The group came to Colombia three years ago at the request of Credhos, a rights-monitoring group that saw five of its members slain in the early 1990s and would only return from exile under the Peace Brigades umbrella.

In Colombia, a Peace Brigades volunteer might check in with a threatened activist once a week, or spend 24 hours a day at a human rights office considered high-risk.

The job can be tedious. Some days the volunteers sit for hours in offices, smoking cigarettes to pass the time.

The mixture of boredom and fear can make for sleepless nights, tension and homesickness among the foreign activists, who all live together in spartan simplicity in a one-story house cooled only by ceiling fans in the oil production city of Barrancabermeja. Each receives a stipend of about $100 a month.

No Peace Brigade worker has been killed since the group was founded in 1981, even though it maintains offices in nations that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International consider too dangerous for their own staff.

Colombia averaged 10 politically motivated murders a day in 1996, according to the Colombian Jurists Commission, a lawyers’ group specializing in human rights.

Credhos gives Peace Brigades nearly full access to its work, barring the volunteers only if a witness or victim of abuse prefers to speak in private. But the foreigners are just observers. Peace Brigades workers do not investigate alleged abuses themselves or meet with illegal armed groups.

In San Pablo, a town of 15,000 people, Mackenzie takes notes during meetings between Credhos and town officials. In one such encounter, she looked on as the mayor accused soldiers of accidentally killing the town inspector during a shootout with guerrillas, then trying to cover it up by saying he was a rebel.

The foreigners are a novelty in the region’s isolated towns and often get long stares from villagers. But Mackenzie and Aramburo say they haven’t been threatened or insulted.

Soldiers did, however, detain two other volunteers briefly in June 1996 while searching the group’s house for guerrillas.

When Credhos returned from exile in 1994, it immediately began receiving death threats. Its president, Osiris Bayther, believes some came from military intelligence officers who view human rights workers as a hindrance in their war against guerrillas.

But the threats diminished after Peace Brigades workers met with army leaders and urged embassies to put pressure on the government.

``We have become untouchables,″ Bayther said at her office in Barrancabermeja, which is 165 miles north of the capital, Bogota.

It is difficult to assess whether the Peace Brigades presence is saving lives. Fighting has slowed in some areas of the Magdalena Medio because paramilitaries operating with the tacit support of the army have pushed rebels out.

Mackenzie often leaves out the more worrying details of her work when she talks by telephone to her parents in East Sussex.

``They know they can’t stop me,″ she said. ``But they give me a lot of support because they know what I’m doing is important.″

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