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Guerrillas Spread Fear, Death and Hardship in Suriname

August 17, 1987|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

PARAMARIBO, Suriname — Bush Negro guerrillas, the descendants of runaway slaves, lurk in the forested hinterlands. Sometimes they strike with surprise attacks, ambushes or sabotage. Sometimes Suriname's military government sends out armored cars and helicopters to hunt them.

Paramaribo, the capital, sits beside the brown Suriname River, listening for echoes of the distant warfare, watching the economy crumble, spinning dark webs of rumor and fear.

South America's youngest nation is struggling through a painful new chapter in its short and peculiar history. Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana, is a rare curiosity of a country on the continent's northeastern corner, a remote region once known as the "wild coast."

Population Pastiche

Its population of 400,000, an exotic pastiche reflecting a long colonial past, includes descendants of indentured laborers from India and Indonesia, of Dutch colonists and their African slaves, and of indigenous Indian tribes collectively called Amerindians.

Its territory is three times the size of Holland. Tropical forests cover most of the land and the people are heavily concentrated near the northern coast.

Today, as in past centuries, the vast interior jungles are shared by Amerindians and blacks known as Bush Negroes or Maroons.

The Bush Negroes are descended from slaves who escaped from Suriname plantations in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, established villages deep in the forest and preserved many of their African folkways. Until the early 1800s, the Bush Negroes fought long, desultory wars with the colonial powers.

Now, 12 years after national independence in 1975, the Bush Negroes are fighting again.

It started on July 21, 1986, when a young Bush Negro named Ronny Brunswijk led a small guerrilla band in a surprise assault on an army post at Stolkertsijver, east of Paramaribo. The guerrillas, attacking with hunting rifles and shotguns, captured military weapons and took 12 prisoners.

Economic Targets Hard Hit

More attacks followed, as the Bush Negroes struck heavy blows at economic targets. In November, because of guerrilla action, work stopped at bauxite mines operated by a subsidiary of the Aluminum Co. of America at Moengo in eastern Suriname. In January, the guerrillas dynamited pylons and cut off electricity from the Afobaka hydroelectric dam, 50 miles south of Paramaribo.

Army and guerrilla casualties are estimated at no more than a few dozen on each side. But foreign diplomats say as many as 400 civilians have been killed in the fighting, many by army troops shooting up villages suspected of harboring guerrillas.

About half of the country's 40,000 to 50,000 Bush Negroes have fled from their villages, taking refuge in the Paramaribo area or in neighboring French Guiana.

Most transportation links have been cut in the war zone, which covers much of eastern and central Suriname.

"Not that it is in rebel hands, but it is also not secure for anyone else," a foreign analyst said. "They have effectively cut off more than one-third of the country."

Schools Closed

Schools in the area, operated by Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries, are closed, and medical clinics are out of supplies.

"All the medical work is in shambles," said a Dutch missionary worker who expressed fear of malaria and yellow fever epidemics.

Since the war began, Brunswijk has become a legendary figure in Suriname. The government depicts him as a bandit turned terrorist, while others see him as a combination of Robin Hood and Rambo.

Few Surinamers regard him as a potential national leader. But many secretly wish him well in his fight against the unpopular government of Lt. Col. Desi Bouterse. Bouterse, 41, is a former army sergeant who seized power in a 1980 coup by noncommissioned army officers.

In 1982, the military rulers terrified the country by rounding up and killing 15 prominent opposition figures. The ruthless action smothered open resistance to the government but stoked widespread resentment of Bouterse and his ruling group.

A Bitter Parting

Brunswijk, 26, was a private in the army and a member of a special security unit that reportedly guarded Bouterse. There are various versions of why Brunswijk was dismissed from the army in 1985, but according to all of them, it was a bitter parting.

He returned to Moengo, his home village in eastern Suriname, and went to work helping his father operate a lumber truck.

Then a masked man robbed a bank, and people said it was Brunswijk. His soccer club, Real Moengo, asked him to present himself for questioning, and he did, according to a relative.

The relative, who asked not to be identified, said Brunswijk was held for about month and then freed.

Another bank was held up, and gunmen carried out a series of highway robberies in eastern Suriname. In Paramaribo, the Brunswijk legend began to take shape. It was said that he distributed proceeds from the robberies to poor Bush Negroes.

"These are not true stories," the relative said.

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