One in Every 40 Colombians, a Refugee

September 25, 2007

The local priest was first to challenge the dark- ness in Guintar by stringing Christmas lights from the church steeple. Then someone hung lights above a nearby door and window. On the day I visited this village of 2,000 in central Colombia, Robert opened his coffee shop for the first time in four months, and light from this single door spilled onto a lovely, deserted and dark central square. Last August, paramilitaries seized Guintar and accused its residents of supporting leftist insurgents. The men, heavily armed and dressed in fatigues, forced everyone from their homes, then chose one man and cut off his nose. A paramilitary told Robert and other store owners that if they opened their doors again, he would return, cut them open alive and string their entrails from the manicured bushes in the square. The reason? Store owners probably sold to middlemen for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas that have oper- ated in these dry mountains for decades. Weeks later, the FARC returned, and vowed that the paramilitaries would never win. To underscore their power, they killed the mayor, a town council- man and a resident of the nearby town of Anzu, who they accused of supporting paramilitaries. Seven families left Guintar the next day, joining the thousands forced to flee their homes because of political violence in Colombia. Robert, though, holds on. He says he has no choice. "I have 11 people in my family, so how are we sup- posed to live?" he asked as we stood near his store. The only one to reopen since August, Robert knew he was risking his life and the lives of his family. A mixture of fury, fear and humiliation twisted his boy- ish features. "The minute we see them coming again, we are going to run for our lives." This drama is repeated in thousands of villages and towns throughout Colombia, where war is not fought between armed and uniformed combatants, but against the civilian population. Although many have died in the hills around Guintar, few wear a uniform or even profess an allegiance to one or another side. It is store owners like TI gathered at a crowded camp at Robert, truck drivers, peasants, Pavarando Grande, which lacked teachers, doctors, community lead- 4 sufficient food, water and health ers, food vendors and washer- _____ 1 care. Even while they were in the women who run the highest risks r _____ 4 camp, paramilitaries threatened in today's Colombia. ______ _______ to kill them and reportedly assas- According to the nongovern- I sinated several people in nearby mental Council on Human Rights I I towns. and Displacement, between 1985 .. The Samper Administration and 1996. 920,000 people have " I responded to mass displacement been displaced by violence one by creating the post of "presiden- in every 40 Colombians. Seventy- tial counselor for the displaced" two percent are children. last April, adopting a revised Although forced displacement has I national plan on displacement in been going on for over a decade, May, and promulgating Law 387 in 1997 was marked by movements July, which deals specifically with of entire populations. For instance, assistance, protection and preven- last March, more than 13,000 peo- tion issues. Advocates for the dis- pie, mostly from Afro-Colombian placed claim that the government communities along the Pacific ispromotingthereturnofthedis- coast, began fleeing their homes A woman and her children forced to flee placed to their homes without after paramilitaries took control of the violence in Uraba province in 1 997 rest guaranteeing their safety. the region. Those who tried to inarefugeecamp. What can be done? Barring hold on later suffered army rocket peace and intense government attacks, which they claimed targeted guerrilla investment in rebuilding burned towns, bombed encampments as well as villages and farms. roads and abandoned fields, Maria Villegas, the Indeed, the close coordination of paramilitaries Public Ombudsperson for the department of with the army continues to be a leading cause of Antioquia, adopts a pra gmatic approach. Since the political violence. Although the government and paramilitaries killed Gu itar's telephone operator and Colombia's military leaders deny that they promote cut the lines, she wi ll try to shame the authorities into or even tolerate paramilitaries, the abundant installing a single pay te lephone for the town, so that evidence reflected in hundreds of investigations car- residents can call out, but no one can be accused of ned out by the attorney general's office, the UN, the placing calls for one or another side. She will send Organization of American States, Human Rights books and toys for a Chris tmas party for the children, Watch, Amnesty International and even the U.S. State but it will be held in the town square, so no home Department is consistent and terrifying. Through its owner can be accused of rebelling against edicts. And armed forces and particularly the army, the when families flee, she will do her best to get them Colombian government continues to tolerate and the pots, blankets and cl othing they will need to start often openly promote paramilitary atrocities in the new lives as refugee s. hopes of vanquishing a decades-old insurgency. I inquire about Robert, and Villegas shakes her The price is murder, forced disappearance and mass head. "By opening his store," she says, "he has signed displacement. In 1997, many Pacific coast refugees his own death certificate."

Tags: Colombia, FARC, civil war, paramilitaries, violence, displaced, refugees

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