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The Suriname Maroon Crisis

They dragged my 12-year-old son from a house and shot him. They shot my wife in the foot. She fell on the ground and begged the soldiers not to kill her...another woman, X, she was pregnant. She pleaded with the soldiers not to kill her and pointed to her belly. She was running away and they shot her in the back. She was dead. Another soldier grabbed a six-month-old baby and put the barrel of his gun in its mouth and laughed. The baby took it eagerly, like a baby bottle. The soldier pulled the trigger. The soldiers rounded up another group of seven people: six children and one woman. They lined them up in the middle of the village, and placed a guard around them on both sides and kept them there, so they couldn't escape. They begged for their lives, but the soldiers shot them all to death...Bouterse's soldiers took some of the bodies away. They dragged some of the bodies into houses, which they doused with diesel oil and set on fire. Before the soldiers left, they burned down the whole village.

Eyewitness account of a massacre in the Maroon village of Moi Wana on 29 November 1986.

Suriname's current political crisis is deeply rooted in the tensions between its ethnic communities. In order to understand the' cause of the bloody civil war between the Maroon ethnic group and the national army, which is mostly composed of other ethnic groups, it is first necessary to know something about the ethnic composition of Suriname.

Suriname's Ethnic Roots

This nation of approximately 350,000 citizens is about the size of the state of Illinois. It is located on the northeast coast of South America between Guyana and French Guiana. Formerly known as Dutch Guiana, Suriname only received its independence from the Netherlands in 1975. Despite its small population, Suriname is one of the most ethnically diverse societies in South America, with groups of East Indians, Indonesians, Chinese, Europeans, Amerindians and blacks (Creoles and Maroons).

The Maroons' ancestors were African slaves who escaped from coastal Suriname between the mid-seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries. After more than half a century of brutal guerrilla warfare against colonial and European troops, the Maroons' independence was recognized by the signing of a peace treaty with the Dutch in the 1760s. This treaty allowed the Maroons to occupy a large part of the interior of Suriname, which has been their homeland ever since.

The Maroons of Suriname thus were among the first people in this hemisphere to gain their independence. Ultimately, they became one of the largest and most concentrated groups of descendants of runaway slaves in the world. The Maroons had enjoyed 100 years of freedom before slavery was finally abolished in 1863. For hundreds of years they were able to develop a culturally rich community life in relative isolation, although economically they always remained dependent on the coastal markets for certain manufactured goods. Today, six Maroon groups, totaling around 65,000 live in Suriname: the Djuka, the Saramaka, the Matawai, the Aluku, the Paramaka and the Kwinti.

The other black subgroup, the Creoles, are mainly descendants of slaves who did not escape from the plantations, along with other Surinamese people of mixed racial origin.

Political Background

Before independence in 1975, Desi Bouterse, a Creole, was a sergeant and physical education instructor in the Dutch-Surinamese army. After Suriname became independent, he joined the newly formed Surinamese national army. Five years after independence, Bouterse led a bloodless coup against the government of Henk Aaron in February 1980.

Eventually, Bouterse gained control of all aspects of the government. On 8 December 1982, he rounded up 15 prominent Surinamese at dawn, tortured them and finally executed them that same morning, claiming that they were plotting a countercoup against him. As he grew to doubt the loyalty of urban Surinamese, he began recruiting Maroons into the army. His own personal bodyguards were Maroon military personnel.

On one level the situation in Suriname could be seen as a personal feud between Desi Bouterse and the young Maroon, Ronnie Brunswijk, a former sergeant in the Suriname army who was Bouterse's personal bodyguard before they had a falling out in 1986. The main cause of the civil war, however, is the age-old contempt with which many urban Surinamese view Maroons.

During the period of Suriname's close relationship with Cuba (1981-1983), Brunswijk was among those who were sent to Cuba for military training. Initially, because Bouterse had announced that he was forming a socialist government, a number of Cuban advisors were sent to Suriname. After the invasion of Grenada, however, Bouterse distanced himself from Castro. In 1985 he signed an aid agreement with Libya, preceding the arrival of Libyan advisors in Suriname.

After the relationship between Brunswijk and Bouterse became strained, Brunswijk was dismissed from the army. He did not take this blow lying down. Before he left the army, he took some munitions with him. Acting as a modern-day Robin Hood, he appropriated money to build homes and help elderly people in his home community of Mungo-tapu.

In June 1986, Bouterse unleashed his full artillery, complete with tanks, on the defenseless village of Mungo-tapu. The army claimed it was looking for Brunswijk. In the following weeks and months, similar violent actions were taken against other Maroon villages, including Mola-kondre, which is located on the road between the mining towns of Mungo and Albina, a border town across the river from French Guiana.

The level of violence against the Maroons continued to escalate: men, women and children were killed left and right by bombing attacks. Many Maroons were left homeless and lost their loved ones. Bouterse's pogroms only succeeded in turning the Maroons even more against him and creating an atmosphere of confrontation. As reported in the New York Times on 18 June 1987: in its latest report on human rights, issued earlier this year, the United States Department of State said that "according to credible eyewitness reports," Government troops trying to eliminate the insurgents had killed at least 244 civilians in operations last December alone.

Many felt that if Bouterse was merely looking for Brunswijk, as he claimed, then his scorched-earth policy against communities that up until then had little or no connection with the guerrilla leader was needless and excessive. Bouterse even hired Amerindians to hunt Maroons for him, as the. colonial troops used to do in the eighteenth century. While the army was attacking Maroon villages, it was also arresting and murdering Maroons in Paramaribo, the capital. Soldiers would visit Maroon houses at night and drag the occupants out at gunpoint; many were never seen again.

The refugees explained that on the day of the killings, soldiers appeared, rounded up women and children, and then took them away to another part of the jungle to be shot. Da Agwe said he couldn't find the bodies until weeks later. "They had been eaten by vultures," he recalled. A second massacre reportedly happened November 29. Survivors said 15 Maroons died, including an infant, and that the killers appeared to be non-Surinamese (US Committee for Refugees, February 1987).

Economic Background

Suriname used to enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes in the region. Bouterse's actions, however, have taken the country down with him socially, economically and politically. One sad note is the cowardly manner in which the urban Surinamese have condoned this kind of madness and let Bouterse destroy their country. They have not realized that when Bouterse has finished with the Maroons, other groups could be next.

After Suriname gained its independence in 1975, the Netherlands agreed to provide $100 million annually in aid for 15 years. Following the execution of the 15 civil leaders in 1982, aid was suspended. The US, too, has cut off its annual subvention of about $1.5 million, in protest of Bouterse's barbaric actions against civilians. The price of bauxite, which used to provide 70 percent of foreign earnings, has fallen as well, and the government has completely depleted its foreign cash reserves.

How can such a depressed economy sustain such a war? The well-documented answer is that Bouterse has been financing the conflict through drug trafficking. In November 1986, Col. Bouterse's closest aide, Capt. Etienne Boerenveen, was sentenced in Miami to 12 years in federal prison for conspiring to permit drug smuggling to the US by renting Suriname airfields to drug dealers at fee of $1,000,000 per load (18 June 1987). Bouterse has even set up a heavily guarded cocaine-processing factory in a remote western corner of the country.

During my recent visit to the Guianas, a former drug salesman for Bouterse nervously and very reluctantly described the trafficking to me:

The raw materials, and the already processed cocaine, would come from Colombia and be processed in Suriname and then shipped out either by planes or by boat - mostly by boats. Bouterse would ship it out by Brazilian fishing boats from Paramaribo to Cayenne and to Brazil. Most of the shipment goes to Brazil. From Cayenne it is shipped to European and North American markets. All the salesmen are from the army or are closely related to Bouterse. He [Bouterse] already had bought a large amount of land and houses in Brazil.

The source also said that Bouterse would make the drug runners adhere to a formal agreement stating that if they were caught, they would never reveal their supplier. The source went on to say that Bouterse pays his drug runners so well that they do not mind the risk involved.

When the shipment reaches Brazil, it is smuggled to the US and elsewhere. The source also said that raw materials came from Brazil to be processed in Suriname. Brazil's fishing boats are always coming and going at the port of Paramaribo, but no one has ever seen them loading or unloading fish. (Surinamese military involvement in the cocaine trade is mentioned in a number of places in the Wako report issued by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights; see, for example, pp. 44-45.)

Rumors that the Maroon rebel Ronnie Brunswijk is receiving support from Surinamese exile groups are unsubstantiated at this point. Many groups have promised financial and material support, but none has been delivered as yet. Some exiles have returned and stayed in hotels for a while, claiming that they were teaching Maroons how to operate in the jungle. In most cases, however, these exiles had never been in the jungle. In any event, teaching Maroons to operate in the jungle would be like trying to teach a fish how to swim. Many exiles want the world to believe that Suriname is being liberated through their efforts, and they use every media opportunity they get to announce their support for Brunswijk.

Suriname had a referendum in September 1987 to ratify a new constitution, and two months later held an election to choose a new government. This only came about as a result of intense internal and international pressure and the increasing isolation of Suriname. The election can be seen as a desperate attempt by the Surinamese regime to restore the suspended foreign aid to its former level. One government officer, during an informal conversation, phrased it this way:

We need the election so that we would be able to receive foreign aid to bring the country back economically to the level which would allow us to live the good life once again; when your Mercedes-Benz has broken down you should be able to get spare parts for it. As for what has happened with the Maroons and in the countryside, we couldn't care less.

Almost a year after the election, the political situation in Suriname is still more or less the same. Ronnie Brunswijk, the Suriname Liberation Army leader, has openly invited the government to negotiate - an offer the government has declined. Some church groups have assumed the search for a peaceful solution to the crisis, but they are working without legitimate guidelines or government cooperation. Bouterse repeatedly has said that he will never negotiate with Brunswijk. Despite the election of a new government, the National Assembly remains under military control. As reported in the Washington Report on the Hemisphere: That Lt. Col. Desi D. Bouterse is the dominant political force in Suriname can be seen by the well-disciplined rhetorical restraint of the FDD, even after their landslide victory. Lachmon and Arron, who promised during the campaign that they would sweep away military influences in the government, have subdued their claims. In reality, under the new Constitution, essential changes are only possible after five years. Until then, the role of the military in the government is untouchable.

Few Maroons were included in the election; only people and political parties from the capital, Paramaribo, took part. As a result, the Maroons have no representative in the new government. The new constitution, which Bouterse himself helped draft, gives the army wide control over the affairs of the country. This constitution allows Bouterse to continue to do whatever he pleases; he has repeatedly said that he will not rest until he has eliminated all the Maroons from Suriname.

Despite the presence of a new government, the future of the Maroons remains very grim. The genocide continues: on 31 December 1987, while many people were trying to get home for New Year's Eve, an army unit randomly pulled eight young Maroon men out of a bus and fatally shot seven of them; the eighth was taken to the hospital in critical condition.

The army has sealed off the Saramaka and Matawai regions: no one can go in or out and food or medical supplies are barred from these communities, which contain about 26,000 people. There have been many reports of starvation and medical neglect. The recurrent waves of urban and rural slaughter continue without anyone being brought to justice. As long as these conditions prevail, democracy in Suriname remains an illusion.

Since the election, the Suriname government has been working around the clock to restore the desperately needed foreign aid. It has been hoping that foreign governments will come to its rescue, even though it has not straightened out its political problems at home. Foreign governments, banks, businesses and multinational lending agencies should not offer financial assistance or invest in Suriname as long as the autocratic and corrupt Col. Desi Bouterse still controls the government. As reported by the Washington Report on the Hemisphere:

The Assembly, however, cannot make laws and is thereby significantly less powerful than the Parliament that was overthrown by Bouterse in 1980. Laws are to be written by the State Council, the composition of which has yet to be decided by the military commander. Already, Bouterse has decided that at least one military representative will be a member.

Democracy in its fullest sense is essential to the reform process. Under conditions in which military forces have had a long history of blocking needed reforms and have engaged in cocaine trafficking, very little hope exists for political and economic development, no matter how many elections are held. Right now any foreign aid to Suriname would be undoubtedly spent on military hardware.

Suriname's Refugees

The immediate challenge facing the region is what is to be done with its refugees - mostly Djukas, Paramakas and Alukus, along with some Amerindians who used to occupy the eastern part of Suriname bordering on French Guiana. Officially, there are 10,000 such refugees, but eyewitness accounts and my personal estimate put the number of those who have fled across the Maroni River into French Guiana even higher.

In addition to the refugees in French Guiana, there are refugees within Suriname: about 4,000 Maroons have fled from the area of Brokopondo and Brownsweg in the Saramaka homeland. Other Maroon groups have been forced to relocate at gunpoint; they have seen their houses, churches, schools, fields, businesses and personal belongings burned down as their territory becomes a war zone. As reported by the United States Committee for Refugees in February 1987:

Although the war may be a minor affair by international standards-the Surinamese military, though it dwarfs the rebel forces, is relatively small - injuries, deaths, and deprivation have resulted. Many innocents have been displaced by fighting or have left their villages for shanty towns in Paramaribo after being told by the government to clear parts of eastern Suriname. Albina, a key trading center for Maroons near the mouth of the Maroni River has been destroyed, and Stoelmanseiland, the site of the only hospital on Suriname's eastern border south of Albina has been bombed. Other villages have also been flattened by air bombardment.

Before Suriname can regain political stability, many questions concerning the future of the Maroons have to be answered: When can they return to their homelands? When they do go back, who will protect them and guarantee their safety? Since their businesses and farms have been destroyed, how will these people survive for the 12 months it will take them to grow and harvest their food?


Many months after the elections of November 1987, the outlook remains bleak. Hopes were high in Suriname that the elections would restore full democratic processes to the country and that a solution to the Maroon crisis would rapidly follow. However, the most recent events show that almost nothing has changed. Basic freedoms, such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech, are still being denied. None of the above questions concerning the future of the Maroons have been adequately addressed.

The new government, still under Bouterse's control and unable to go against his wishes, continues to refuse to negotiate directly with Brunswijk and his forces. Recent evidence indicates that the ongoing attempts by religious groups to initiate peace talks are now on the verge of breaking down. The Surinamese military, under the command of Bouterse, is once again resorting to violent tactics. In mid-June of 1988 for example, a Surinamese army detachment clashed with supporters of Brunswijk in the Patamacca area, resulting in casualties on both sides.

Clearly, Suriname is no closer to solving its problems than it was before the elections. In spite of appearances, ultimate power rests in the hands of Bouterse, an individual who has vowed to eliminate the entire Maroon population of Suriname. As long as the country is run by one who rejects all compromise or negotiation and refuses to respect democratic principles, there is little hope for the future of Suriname.

Both the Caribbean and world communities, the Organization of American States, the United States, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as other organizations and officials have a moral responsibility to recognize the problems of this South American country. These organizations should not turn their backs on the problems facing the Maroons, who have for centuries determined their own destiny, giving their blood to preserve their freedom, dignity and cultural identity.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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