- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2003

GRANADA, Colombia Teachers must deal with long hours, low pay and often difficult work around the world. But being a teacher in Colombia entails a new level of risk and sacrifice.
Last year, 83 teachers were murdered in Colombia, most by right-wing militias who accused them of collaborating with leftist rebels, said Fabio Zapata of the Colombian Teachers Federation. That was almost double the 42 killed in 2001.
For Bladimir Garay, director of an elementary and middle school in the village of La Julia, just traveling twice a month to visit his distant home in the town of Granada is dangerous.
During the trip, which takes six to 10 hours, Mr. Garay passes through roadblocks set up by the Colombian army, rebels and outlawed paramilitary fighters.
"You just close your eyes and pray that nothing happens," he said.
While in La Julia, Mr. Garay strives to appear neutral in an area that was once part of a safe haven given to the rebels by then-President Andres Pastrana, who sought to negotiate an end to four decades of fighting.
The rebels still exert influence in the region, and the presence of government troops and paramilitary fighters on the outskirts has created a dangerous blend. Residents seen talking to members of one side or the other are often branded collaborators and are sometimes killed.
Teachers, paid just more than $200 a month, are often the only state presence in isolated areas where even soldiers and police don't dare go. They sometimes become authority figures in the community and targets, when they try to resolve local conflicts, said Mr. Zapata, of the teachers federation.
At least 3,000 teachers were moved from their communities last year and reassigned to new schools after receiving death threats, Mr. Zapata said.
"These are very brave men and women," he said. "I wouldn't choose to be in their place."

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