Suriname's almost unnoticed civil war enters second year

July 7, 1987
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PARAMARIBO, Suriname -- Almost unnoticed in a world torn by major civil strife in places like Afghanistan, Lebanon and Northern Ireland, a small guerrilla war raging in Suriname has entered its second year.

In July 1986, a small band of armed men led by an army deserter robbed some banks and hijacked a few trucks in eastern Suriname. Few Surinamese were aware it was the start of a civil war.

But the deserter, Ronny Brunswijk, 25 -- a former bodyguard of Suriname's military ruler -- and his band have since gained control of hundreds of square miles of Suriname, a former Dutch colony the size of Georgia on South America's northeast coast.

Brunswijk claims among his grievances that the government mistreats the rural, poor blacks, who are decendants of slaves brought to Suriname from Africa in the 18th century.

Much of Brunswijk's support comes from the blacks, who number about 40,000, some 10 percent of Suriname's population.

Brunswijk has vowed to overturn the government of his former boss, Lt. Col. Desi Bouterse, 41, a creole of mixed African and European descent who seized power in 1980.

The war has been fought, for the most part, in minor skirmishes in the jungle interior of this steamy country just north of the equator.

A typical incident occurred two weeks ago about 50 miles south of Paramaribo. Rebels dug a huge pothole on the curve of a jungle road. When a truck carrying soldiers overturned after striking the pothole, rebels attacked and hacked one man to death while another drowned in a water filled ditch. Five escaped with minor wounds.

But the Brunswijk rebels have engaged the army in many larger-scale operations as well.

After a year of fighting, in which skirmish casualties usually number in single digits, the government no longer scoffs at Brunswijk, referring to him now as a terrorist instead of bank robber, the term it used a year ago.

Suriname has been ruled by the military since Bouterse, then a sergeant, led the coup by enlisted soldiers in 1980 that ousted the civilian government of President Henk Arron. The civilian rule had endured for five years after Suriname was granted independence from the Netherlands.

Now Bouterse's own rule is threatened, as the Brunswijk band's raids become more and more bold, sapping Suriname's already reeling economy.

Since January, the rebels, believed to number a few hundred, have twice cut electricity from the vital Afobaka Dam hydroelectric project in the Brokopondo District 60 miles south of Paramaribo. The dam provides about a quarter of the nation's electricity including most of the power needed by Suriname's vital aluminum industry.

In his boldest strike so far, Brunswijk last January attacked and held for several days the bauxite mining town of Moengo, 60 miles east of Paramaribo.

With the nation's most important bauxite mine shut down, and electricity to the U.S.-owned aluminum refining and smelting plants curtailed, the nation's aluminum exports have virtually ceased.

Since bauxite qnd aluminum had accounted for 70 percent of Suriname's export earnings, Bouterse's government is faced with a critical shortage of hard currency and the population is suffering a shortage of food and other consumer goods, causing dissent among the country's usually quiet population.

In 1982, right-wing military officers plotted a coup against Bouterse. The plot was discovered and the institgator executed. Government security forces also rounded up about two dozen Surinamese civic leaders, 15 of whom died in custody or while allegedly trying to escape.

Open dissent against the government since then has been essentially muffled. But schoolchildren, angry at the shortage of so many goods, boycotted classes for several weeks this year, clamoring for an improvement in the nation's standard of living and for a return to democracy.

Bouterse, in response, has promised national elections in November of this year.

The little guerrilla war that seems unnoticed by most of the rest of the world has, like other wars, produced its share of refugees.

More than 9,000 people, almost all of the the rural blacks, have crossed the Maroni River into French Guiana, which borders Suriname on its eastern flank.

Even larger numbers have fled the jungle interior, where most of the fighting has taken place, to Paramaribo, a squalid port city that once had a population of about 160,000. It inhabitants now number in uncounted tens of thousands.

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