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COLOMBIA
A country of exiles
Jenny Manrique
3/27/2008
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Displacement affects more than 3 million Colombians.

In the poorest neighborhoods on the outskirts of Bogota, the country is re-settling. Coming from the richest lands in Colombia, where subsistence products feed many mouths, thousands of families have had to move to improvised shacks, built on unstable land that occupies an immense labyrinth.

The multiple accents no longer talk only of a war extended to all corners of the country, but a collective sadness brought on by forced displacement — already recognized by the International Criminal Court as a crime against humanity.

Near 25,000 exiles are now living in the Altos de Cazuca, in the capital’s southeast district of Soacha, now the biggest recipient of this population along with neighboring Ciudad Bolivar.

This conflict, in addition to murders and kidnappings, has also produced 3 million internal refugees in the last two decades, with an annual rate of around 200,000 people, according to the governmental program Social Solidarity Network. The majority of these refugees are escaping threats or from being caught in the crossfire in areas fought over by more than one armed group, where the word “state” comes off as a joke.

Caught in the crossfire
Mara, as she asked to be called, knows better than anybody what it means to be part of the civilian population in the middle of the conflict. The 37-year-old is originally from a town of some 5,500 inhabitants, close to the Caucasia municipality in the northwestern Antioquia department.

Her house was surrounded by a river of rivalries: just crossing it would warrant an encounter with members of paramilitaries and a few steps to the other side would mean a run-in with guerrilla fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). There her husband worked driving a small boat, or chalupa, that served as public transportation between the two banks.

“We survived on that. He made some 700,000 pesos [US$350] a month working 10 hours a day. It wasn’t enough because when one is poor, nothing is ever complete, but we at least owned a house,” said Mara, who was working then as a mother leader in the government program Families in Action, which benefited 144 mothers who received a subsidy for their children’s education.

“Once, a group of people hired him to go to the other side of the river and on crossing, there was another group of people, armed, who told him not to move until he received a new order. It seems that this group had killed a few people, so their family members took it out on my husband because he supposedly should have known that he was transporting murderers,” she said.

“That’s why the guerrillas came to my town looking for him and he had to flee to the jungle,” she added. “Then they took my son, they were going to kill him … but he also escaped. They retaliated against us and came in my home with rocks, sticks and arms, screaming, ‘damn killers, come out.’

After hiding for several hours, they managed to leave at night to go to Caucasia in a car that a family member got for them. They went to the house of Mara’s mother, who lives in precarious conditions and could only offer a floor to sleep on. In the middle of last year, they managed to go to Bogota thanks to tickets sent by Mara’s sister.

She finally met someone from the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who helped her get a change of clothing and told her how to get the emergency humanitarian aid offered by the government — some $100 a month per family — including three months of rent and food, usually a long time after the first move.

Violent parallel power
Painful stories like Mara’s are found in the Altos de Cazuca, with 30 neighborhoods and available land, mostly illegal, without any mention in the District Land Ordering Plan. The precariousness of the infrastructure causes the cost of rent to waver between 50,000 and 100,000 pesos ($25 and $50) per month, including services — very little compared to other sectors in the city.

All of this deregulation has brought about a violent parallel power. Daniel Rendón, 38, who arrived to the area in 1998 and César Plata, 36, who has been there eight years are both witnesses of this. Both men are members of Soacha’s Table of Dialogue, Management and Development (MIGD, for its initials in Spanish), that defends the rights of displaced people.

They arrived after fleeing from the northern Uraba region in times when there was a cooperative in Soacha with a registry in the Chamber of Commerce that offered 16 by 12-meter (52 by 39-foot) lots costing up to one million pesos ($500).

Despite legislation recognizing displaced persons as being entitled to special rights for their condition as victims, the attention this population receives is almost entirely dependent on international cooperation.

“The people’s attitude is: you poor displaced people, take these pants and this old shirt. And we are people who lived better than anyone who now looks at us with pity,” said Rendón.

A scourge that doesn’t stop
• 3 million have emigrated internally because of violence in the last 20 years.

• A record 414,000 emigrated in 2002, the first year of Álvaro Uribe’s government.

• 200,000 annually have abandoned their homes in the last five years.

• Emigrees’ departments: Antioquia, Valle, Tolina, Meta, Caqueta

• Receiving cities: Bogota and Soacha, Medellin, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Cali, Villavicencio.

• Threat origin: FARC 88 percent, National Liberation Army (ELN) 28 percent, paramilitary groups 17 percent, ex-paramilitary and drug-trafficking groups as well as common crime 84 percent (the figure goes over 100 percent because in various cases there is more than one threat origin).

Sources: UNHCR and Social Solidarity Network. Figures from September 2007.


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