Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Colombian refugees reach 3 million

The Daily Journal

PEREIRA, Colombia (AP) – Armando Garcés was reluctant to leave his mountain village even after right-wing militia members had gone door to door telling residents they had 48 hours to evacuate, or else. He didn’t like being ordered to abandon the only home he had ever known.

Then a daylong gun battle erupted between the paramilitary fighters and leftist guerrillas over control of nearby coca crops and transit routes. Garcés’ town – Bajo Calima, nestled in Colombia’s Pacific coast rain forest – was caught in the crossfire between the rebels above the town and militia members below it.

“We hid under our beds all day, and the next morning we were gone,” said Garcés, recalling the terrifying day in June when his township became a battleground in the nation’s long-running drug wars. “Everyone agreed it was time to look for some other future.”

So the 25-year-old woodcutter, his wife, two children and 500 other residents joined Colombia’s swelling ranks of the internally displaced.

More than 3 million people have been driven from their homes by the long-standing civil conflict between Colombian armed groups vying for political dominance and control of crops related to the nation’s drug trade as well as of other agricultural products.

Only Sudan has more internally displaced citizens than Colombia, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, a human rights group that has tracked the displaced around the globe for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Although Colombia has had a large displaced population for two decades, the numbers have accelerated in recent months, experts say, and a disproportionate number are, like Garcés, Afro-Colombians.

They are targeted because they lack political clout and sophistication at a time when their rural homes have become economically attractive.

Ricardo Esquivia, general coordinator of ARVIDAS, an advocacy group for the displaced in Sucre state, said most Afro-Colombians who own such lands either lack full knowledge of their rights or the political power to impose them.

One factor working against Afro-Colombians is the 80 percent illiteracy rate in the rural areas where many of them live, said Esquivia, himself an Afro-Colombian.

“They are historically vulnerable and relegated because they have never fully exercised their economic, social and cultural rights,” said Jorge Rojas, a leading advocate for human rights and the displaced in Bogotá.

Those rights include a constitutional provision that guarantees land title to Afro-Colombian rural communities that have organized loosely as a group and have occupied their property for 10 years or more, said Luis Murillo, a former governor of Colombia’s Choco state.

Murillo, also an Afro-Colombian, estimates that 1 million Afro-Colombians, or one-third of those living in rural areas, have been forced from their lands.

The growing number of displaced has much to do with the changing logistics of Colombia’s multibillion-dollar cocaine trade.

The success of spraying programs sponsored by the U.S. government to eradicate coca leaf production in Colombia’s Amazon basin has caused a shift in coca farming to more remote areas, including the Pacific coastal zone surrounding Bajo Calima, where Afro-Colombians are concentrated.

The port city of Buenaventura near Garces’ hometown and the estuaries that drain into it have become the most important cocaine processing and transshipment centers in Colombia, according to recent interviews with U.S. law enforcement officials.

Garcés and fellow residents were lucky to escape with their lives. In past years, both paramilitary and guerrilla groups in towns such as Bajo Calima have massacred thousands of people whom they suspected of helping the other side, or just for being in the way.

Since July, Garces has lived in a shantytown here called Plumón. It is on the outskirts of Pereira, built into the side of a river canyon and has no running water or electricity.

Internal refugees such as Garcés put enormous pressure on towns where they have moved. “It’s im-possible to solve the housing problem.

We are incapable,” said Pereira city manager Germán Darío Saldarriaga, whose town in the interior – about 120 miles northeast of Buenaventura and about 105 miles west of Bogotá – is struggling with 15,000 displaced residents, about half of them Afro-Colombian. Pereira has built three new hospitals and is erecting nearly 1,000 housing units to accommodate the displaced, but needs 4,000 more houses to deal with the overflow. Meanwhile, crime has skyrocketed, Saldarriaga said.

“Sometimes we feel overwhelmed, but it’s much worse in other cities like Medellín and Cali,” he said.
Human rights groups inside and outside Colombia see a longer-term risk in the government’s inability to stand up for the land rights of its citizens. Many say the voices of the displaced aren’t being heard in Colombia’s nascent peace process.

Although kidnappings and kill-ings have declined, the process that President Alvaro Uribe began in July 2003 to try to demobilize Colombia’s armed factions doesn’t do enough to ensure that the displaced may someday return to the millions of acres of land they have abandoned, said Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group, a coalition of religious and humanitarian agencies in Washington.

Haugaard and others fear that a law passed last summer outlining the terms of “reinsertion” of fighters into society will mean that most of the abandoned land, totaling 10 million acres, will simply remain in the hands of demobilized paramilitary fighters.

If that turns out to be the case, shantytowns like Plumón, where Garcés lives, and Bosques de Otun could be the breeding grounds for a future generation of Colombian revolutionaries, she said.

“There is definitely a silence in the peace process on this question of land rights. Yet it will be dealt with in conflict and in a myriad of conflicting ways on the ground,” Haugaard said.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá say they fear that the problem of Colombia’s displaced is a humanitarian time bomb and that the U.S. Agency for International Development’s $30-million annual aid package is being redesigned to focus more on the needs of Afro-Colombians.

That redesign is partially the result of pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus in the U.S.
“It’s a huge crisis for a country already dealing with a lot of other crises at the same time,” said a U.S. Embassy official who asked not to be identified.


Blogger Kayaboy said...

Please explain to me why our government thinks we are winning this war?

1/10/2006 10:43:00 PM  

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