September 1, 2000

Colombia's Forgotten Victims — Those Hurt Most Difficult To See

By Paul Jeffrey

SANTA FE DE BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — The government has its spokespersons, the army its public relations experts, the guerrillas their spin doctors. Journalists had no problem finding sound bites from these highly visible participants in Colombia's unrelenting violence during U.S. President Bill Clinton's brief visit to Cartagena on August 30.

Yet the two million Colombians who have been internally displaced during the conflict find it almost impossible to make their voices heard.

Colombia has more internally displaced persons than any other country except Sudan. Amounting now to almost five percent of the population, they've been rapidly growing in numbers.

The infusion of massive U.S. military aid in coming months ensures that their ranks will continue to grow. Clinton came to the seaside city of Cartagena — the nation's capital was considered too dangerous — to express support for Colombian President Andres Pastrana's "Plan Colombia," an ambitious program to eradicate coca production and end the crippling war with several armed groups.

Clinton symbolically handed over a $1.3 billion U.S. aid package that dramatically increases the U.S. military presence in this country and provides 63 high-tech helicopters to the military and police purportedly for fumigation of coca.

Critics point out that, despite years of steadily increasing U.S.-financed fumigation, coca production has constantly expanded.

"Fumigation is a political obsession of the North Americans, even though it simply doesn't work," said Leila Lima, coordinator for the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees. "What fumigation has done is increase the numbers of internally displaced people, as well as push the agricultural frontier deeper into the jungle."

Interlocking wars between the government military, left-wing guerrilla armies, and right-wing paramilitary squads have also pushed displacement.

Every armed group in Colombia has some relation to narcotrafficking, which makes negotiated solutions more difficult to achieve. The biggest guerrilla army, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), officially controls 42,000 square kilometers in the south of the country. The second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), held talks with Colombian government officials at the end of July, but the meetings ended without substantial progress, in part because the government refuses to grant it a similar chunk of territory.

Forced displacement is one byproduct of guerrilla activity — particularly when guerrilla armies recruit young men — but it's also one product of the right-wing paramilitary squads' essential strategy. Funded in part by wealthy landowners and often working in coordination with the government military, paramilitar-ies are responsible for roughly two-thirds of all forced displacement. They take control of economically strategic areas — including a proposed interoceanic canal route and a gold mining zone — and massacre civilians, provoking a massive exodus and leaving the areas free for investors to do what they want.

Forced displacement is also causing a shift in land ownership. According to a recent study by the Consulting Group on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), nearly 60 percent of families displaced last year owned agricultural land. That's a much higher percentage than in previous years, and marks what CODHES Director Jorge Rojas calls a "violent recomposition of landholding."

The CODHES study indicated that from 1996 to 1999, about 1.5 million hectares of agricultural land abandoned was worked by small and mid-sized producers who owned between two and ten hectares. (A hectare is about 1/4 acre).

"What we know is how to plant corn and cassava, but where are we going to plant here in the city, where everything is covered by concrete?" asked one displaced peasant. "We've not only lost our land, we've been forced to trade in our machete and hoe for a backpack to carry around whatever we can beg."

While the Colombian government is theoretically responsible for helping resettle the displaced, critics claim it fails miserably. "The state is lazy and it's a constant liar, and it leaves the displaced to fight for scarce resources against other poor people," said Diego Falla, a government human rights official.

"There's no viable solution for these people unless the government dedicates adequate resources to the task, yet so far there's been no political will to do that," Falla said.

"It's easier to talk to the Pope than to talk with the people in the government offices that are supposed to help us," said a displaced man now living in Bogota.

Many of those forced to leave their homes were targeted for harassment and violence because they were community leaders.

"Where we came from we were somebody, people knew us. Then we have to leave and all of a sudden we're nobody," said Olga Remolina, a woman displaced last year. "We've lost everything, our homeland, our property, our family. At times we've even lost our faith, as we ask, like Jesus, why we've been abandoned by God."

While the displaced have little political pull, that may be changing. In the past, many churches and non-governmental organizations have provided food, clothing, shelter, and training, but the raw numbers have grown so swiftly a new approach is needed.

"We're working more these days on helping the displaced to strengthen their own organizations in order to move from despair to dignity, to solutions where they are treated as social subjects with rights and with visions for solving their own problems," said Antony Sanchez, director of the Mennonite Development Foundation of Colombia.

As a result, the displaced are slowly gaining importance in the national debate. In the last two years, they've taken over public buildings and held demonstrations. One association of displaced families has occupied the Bogota office of the International Red Cross for several months.

Yet thier dire predicament still doesn't get the media attention enjoyed by the armed groups or the government. Of all the important actors in Colombia's tragic drama, the displaced remain the forgotten ones.

Paul Jeffrey writes on international development issues for the National Catholic Reporter and other publications.

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