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The BBC's Humphrey Hawksley
"The Indians are in a state of drift and no-one seems to know a way out"
 real 56k

Sunday, 11 March, 2001, 10:25 GMT
Desperate plight of Paraguayan Indians
Maka woman
Tribal leaders travel hundreds of miles
Humphrey Hawksley in Paraguay finds a record of neglect of the indigenous Indian population

Nestor Flores, a Paraguyaan Indian tribal leader, trekked 300 miles to see what was happening about the government's promise to build a school for his village.

It was a humiliating place to end up - on a broken plastic chair, in the ground floor entrance and garage of a run-down government building known locally as the INDY - the Paraguayan department which handles the affairs of indigenous Indians.

Maka woman
Ethnic indians are a small minority in Paraguay
Nestor was a chubby Buddha-like man in his late 40s, and with him were a dozen other leaders from all over Paraguay, wasting away their day waiting for a meeting with Mrs Olga Rojas de Baez, a ferocious blonde Paraguayan in charge of the INDY.

Nestor had been there for 10 days. The others for as long as three months, and when Olga walked through to go to her office, their eyes didn't meet.

There were no greetings, no "I'll see you in a minute," from her.

There was no shouting of abuse from them, or even pleading for an appointment.

There was just a complete silence, as if it was the natural way for the Indians to wait, for the Paraguayans to ignore and for nothing to happen.

Myth and reality

Upstairs, Olga's air conditioned office was decorated with sketches of Indians, the women bare-breasted and the men in head-dresses with spears.

She gave us a colourful woven bag and insisted we visit an Indian handcraft centre.

It's not that Indians don't have access to education - it's that they don't use it

Olga Rojas de Baez, Indian affairs
"Sure," I say, "but first tell me why the Indian community isn't integrated properly into society."

Without drawing breath Olga says: "It's up to them to take the first step, and they won't do that because they don't like to get close to Paraguayan culture."

"But what I don't understand," I went on, "is why you head this department and not an indigenous Indian."

"Oh an Indian couldn't do that. The Indians don't have the university education. I don't know any accountants or economists among them."

Then even Olga thought she might have over-stepped the line and added, "It's not that Indians don't have access to education - it's that they don't use it."

When the Spanish Conquistadors began conquering Latin America 400 years ago, the Paraguayan Indians were among the most welcoming and Paraguay one of the first places to be colonised.

Paraguay also took a lead by writing land and other Indian rights into its new constitution in the early nineties.

Which begs the question, though, why, shortly after our interview, Olga was sent up to Washington to defend herself over allegation of human rights abuses against the Indian community.

Empty promises

The answer probably lies in a hospital, opened three years ago, on the outskirts of Asuncion.

"Go there," Olga had insisted effusively. "We built it completely for the Indians. It's always full. A fantastic success."

Eighteen months ago Maria could have been saved; now she's definitely brain damaged and living in terrible pain

When we arrived, we found Olga herself had never even visited.

Beds were empty and rusting, mattresses rolled up and damp from the rain and humidity.

No doctor was there. Just one Paraguayan nurse, disgusted with her own government for failing to supply medicine - even bed sheets.

Upstairs, we found Carmen Martinez who was back with her two-year-old daughter, Maria, for the second time.

She had hydrocephalus, where her skull had expanded because the cranial fluid hadn't properly drained.

"I've been asking for help ever since she was born," says Carmen. "All I know is that Maria needs an operation and then she'll be better."

Yes, Maria does need a simple, routine operation, but now she might not get better.

While in Paraguay we did try to find a doctor to come out and give us an assessment, but couldn't get one to come to the hospital.

Back in London, we asked an expert to look at our pictures.

Eighteen months ago Maria could have been saved; now she's definitely brain damaged and living in terrible pain - you can tell by the way her eyes move.

And in another six months, without help, she could be dead.

Maria wasn't a third-world child caught up in war or famine. She was victim of something more complex - political neglect.

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