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COLOMBIA Women visit Valley to seek help for native country



Published: Sat, September 18, 2004 @ 12:00 a.m.



The women are asking the congressman to help bring peace to Colombia.

By JULIE A. WAGNER

VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR

YOUNGSTOWN -- Until Sept. 5, Mariam del Carmen Mart & iacute;nez had never been outside of her native country of Colombia, which has been wracked by years of violence over drugs and power.

But, during the past few weeks, the 33-year-old widow, mother of four and self-described "simple farmer" has been touring the United States with Maria Elena Racines, a Lutheran lay minister and evangelist, meeting with congressmen and 20 organizations to plead for help in ending the violence.

Mart & iacute;nez and other women, sponsored by Lutheran World Relief, are urging the United States to send humanitarian aid rather than military funding to their war-torn country.

Tuesday they spoke with Pearlette Wigley, a liaison for U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, of Niles, D-17th, and gave her a letter asking Ryan to support legislation that would reduce U.S. troops in Colombia and change funding to the country.

Ryan is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. The women also spoke Tuesday night at Grace Lutheran Church in Austintown.

"I'm bringing you the message of all the women I work with because we have a deep hope and a deep faith," Mart & iacute;nez said, speaking through Lutheran World Relief interpreter Kirsten Anderson-Stembridge.

Forced from homes

On Dec. 28, 2001, Mart & iacute;nez was among 5,000 people forced by the paramilitary from their homes in the rich farmlands near Oca & ntilde;a, in the province of Norte de Santander. The paramilitary, which was supposed to be helping the government, abused them and brutally killed many men, she said. Today the paramilitary uses their farms to grow coca plants, which is used to make cocaine, she said. Mart & iacute;nez's husband and a son died in the attack. She and many other "incomplete" families fled to the cities.

In all, 3.2 million people in the nation of Colombia have been displaced since 1985 by the fighting between the guerrillas and the government, the women said. Landowners have them removed from private property, and the government removes them from city parks. Colombia's president told them to go home, but they know they will be killed by if they do, Mart & iacute;nez said.

Mart & iacute;nez and 2,000 displaced with her won a lawsuit against the government for their lost land, but the court order hasn't been followed. Mart & iacute;nez is a member of the Council of Women from the Association of Displaced people of Oca & ntilde;a. She is part of a group of six families who work together on a community farm in Colombia.

Needs assistance

The paramilitary, the police and the government fight the guerrillas, but no one helps the displaced and often abuse them, she said. They aren't for or against any group, but just want to see an end to the fighting.

"The United States shouldn't send more military aid for the war," Racines said. Instead, she would like to see an increase in social and economic assistance.

Of the $11.6 million spent each day on the fighting in Colombia, the United States contributes $1.6 million, Racines said. Meanwhile, there is "no health care, no dignified housing for those who don't have resources and those who are displaced."

Racines lives in Bucaramanga with her daughters and her husband, Wilson, who is a humanitarian worker with the Lutheran Church. As a lay minister, Racines has worked in two missions and has helped create a soup kitchen and a school and has started other programs for displaced people.




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