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Colombian Twins in Custody Battle

August 18, 1999

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Snugly wrapped in booties and blankets, twins Juan and Keila Aguablanca snooze blissfully in adjacent cribs at a Bogota adoption center while an unusual custody battle rages around them.

The 6-month-olds with wispy black hair were born into the U’wa Indian tribe, a traditional and insular people who customarily abandon newborn twins in the forest or toss them into rivers, believing they bring bad luck.

Juan and Keila escaped that fate when their parents left them in a public health clinic three days after their birth on Feb. 11.

By now, they’d probably already be with a new family in Bogota _ or Spain, France or the United States, countries where many of the roughly 2,500 Colombian children are adopted annually.

However, stung by media reports portraying their traditions as barbaric, the 8,000-member U’wa nation is fighting to halt the adoption process. Tribal leaders have asked the courts to give them until December to re-examine the ancient custom _ and perhaps welcome back the twins.

But social workers and child rights advocates are adamantly opposed to that solution. They say Juan and Keila _ who has a respiratory problem and needs oxygen to breathe _ could never be safe among people who might have discarded them in the wild.

``Sincerely, I don’t think an Indian community is going to simply change the customs it’s been practicing for so many years,″ said Barbara Escobar, director of the Casa de La Madre y El Nino, the adoption center housing the twins.

She has petitioned the courts to keep Juan and Keila from ever returning to the U’wa reserve, a land of hills and forest near the Venezuelan border where the Indians fish and grow bananas and yucca.

Twin births are seen as an evil omen in many cultures around the world. In some, multiple births are considered something fitting for animals _ not humans.

``There is sometimes a belief that these are demon children, that the father is some sort of animal,″ Leigh Minter, psychologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said Wednesday.

Minter said the explanation often hides a practical motive. If food is limited, a woman might find it difficult to raise two children at the same time.

Other societies, however, have viewed twins as a gift from the gods or a sign of exceptional fertility.

With 80 tribes and 700,000 Indians out of a population of 40 million, Colombia leads Latin America in recognizing Indians’ rights to observe their traditions. In 1997, the courts even backed the right of one tribe to whip a man who took part in a murder.

But Blanca Lucia Echeverry, the top Indian affairs aide to Colombia’s human rights ombudsman, said the U’wa case will set limits on how far culturally diverse Colombia can go in protecting minority practices the majority deems immoral.

``There’s never been a case with such huge dimensions,″ she said.

The case is already showing there are limits to how far Colombia’s Indians can live by their own rules.

On Aug. 3, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision rejecting the U’wa’s latest appeal for more time to deliberate the issue.

Saying it was choosing the childrens’ well-being over U’wa cultural rights, the court ruled Juan and Keila would be psychologically harmed if they went any longer without parents. That decision has to be reviewed by Colombia’s highest tribunal, the Constitutional Court.

Meanwhile, a Solomonian solution may be in the works.

Juan Manuel Urrutia, director of the government’s Institute for Family Welfare, said the twins might be given back to the U’wa, providing the tribe guarantees their safety and permits strict monitoring by social workers.

``If there are guarantees, we’ll return the children, and if not, we’ll look for alternatives,″ he said.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the U’wa will soften traditional views that have thrust them into the limelight before. Calling petroleum the ``blood of mother earth,″ the U’wa drew worldwide attention in 1997 by threatening mass suicide in a successful protest to stop oil drilling on their lands.

In a telephone interview from the town of Cubara, just outside the U’wa reserve, tribal spokesman Jose Cobaria said the U’wa believe that multiple-birth and deformed babies are harbingers of evil.

The children are abandoned in the wild, he said, but the U’wa believe spirits take them to ``another world″ before they are devoured by nature.

Cobaria said Juan and Keila’s parents have been isolated from the rest of the community so they can be cleansed of impurities linked to the birth. For four years, they cannot visit other houses or share food with neighbors.

Publicity about the twins has prompted a debate within the U’wa community, but Cobaria said there was only a remote chance that tribal leaders would welcome the twins back.

``The elders are very strict,″ he said.

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