by Parrish Jones
©2004. All rights reserved.
“The armies began coming 6 or 7 years ago. At first they just harassed us,” began Diego, “but then the rebels came and forced us to let them use our homes. They demanded food and service. They talked our young men into joining their army ‘to fight for justice’, they said. Then they left us to ourselves and we prayed we were done. But several weeks later another group, they did not tell us who they were, came and forced us to leave in hours on the bad road. We couldn’t take anything that we could not put on our backs and those of a few horses and donkeys. The carts were useless on that road. We came here with nothing. We have nothing—no home, no clothes, no work— just long hours of boredom and sadness.”
I have read and heard about the displacement of Colombians for the last ten years during which more than 3 million Colombians have become internally displaced persons (IDP), but talking to people like Diego gave faces to the truth. The U.S. embassy in an interview with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship delegation in May, 2004, said that it estimates no less than 2.5 million persons remain internally displaced. (NOTE: they discount those who have chosen for whatever reason not to return home.) During our trip, we met face to face several scores of IDP’s in Urabá and Medellín.
According to the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights IDPs are persons who have been forced from their homes to other parts of the country in which they are citizens and retain all rights of citizenship. In addition to the IDP’s there are an estimated 30,000 Colombian refugees who live in Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador, not withstanding an undetermined number who live in the U.S., Canada and Europe. It is estimated that 1.2 million persons have left the country permanently in the last five years for the U.S. and Canada.
The common factors in all these persons is violence. Most have either left their homes because of escalating violence or been forced from their homes under threat of life and at gunpoint. The rest have experienced the violence of aerial spraying of herbicides that have decimated their subsistence crops and affected their health. The U.S. State Department estimates that about 55% of IDP’s are victims of the Right Wing Paramilitary forces (AUC) and that 45% are the victims of the Left Wing rebel groups—Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the Army of National Liberation (ELN).
Demographically, the IDP’s are about 30% Afro Colombian (as compared to being only 20% of the population) and 70% are indigenous and mixed. Over 20% of IDPs are female heads of household and 70% are children living in absolute poverty, resulting in high levels of prostitution, child abuse, rape and sexual intimidation.
Most IDP’s come from farms and farming villages in a sparsely populated nation the size of the Southeastern U.S. with a population of about 44 million. Francisco told us that not all IDP’s are poor, “I had 1200 acres with 700 cows and 35 horses, mules and donkeys. Our house was nice. We had a good life. Now we live on a cliff in a plastic shelter with inadequate water, sewage, and garbage collection, no schools and no doctors.” Being skilled for rural life with little in the way of machines and electricity, they are inadequately prepared for urban life filled with technology.
One pastor with whom we spoke said that the violence is system wide now as opposed to years ago when it was primarily rural. It includes actual killing but also includes threats, disappearances, appropriation of property, invasion of homes, and the denial of human rights.
Flor told us the tragic tail of her four displacements. At first from a 40 acre plot south of Medellín several hundred miles. She was given a few hours to pack her family up and get out. The men gave her a small amount of money and forced her to sign her title for the land over to them. With her children she fled down the mountain to a nearby village. As she left, she heard gun shots and assumed one was used for her husband whom she has not seen since. Older sons fled to the FARC to fight those who forced them out. Having finally found a new place to live, she and the younger children were once more forced from the village with the other villagers. In a few years she and friends got permission to start a community in the mountains on 35 acres of land. They got the crops planted and huts built only to be forced off the land for collaborating with the FARC, which she said was untrue. Now she lives on the cliffs above Medellín where she continues to suffer intimidation and harassment from the AUC soldiers and National Police.
The day we talked with Flor and about 20 others, there was a gun battle going on between AUC soldiers and National Police over some dispute regarding a murder earlier that day. Since the homes of the IDP's are built of plastic, cardboard and some plywood, they have no protection from the bullets. They can do nothing but hide in their homes and pray they will not get shot.
What did they ask of us? They asked that we pray for their future and ask our government to stop the violence. They believe that if the U.S. chose to send more social aid and less military aid, it would stop the violence and help them go home.
Their view is perhaps oversimplified and narrow. The purpose of appropriating land is to gain permanent control of regions rich in minerals and agricultural resources. Wealthy corporate interests have a vested interest in controlling the land for future development. In the meantime, despite some aid for the displaced from the U.S. and a Colombian resettlement plan for the IDP’s, it seems unlikely the majority of people will go home any time soon if ever.