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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Striving for a brighter future in Colombia

(Washington, D.C.) February 20, 2013 — Colombian refugees and internally displaced people are the frequently forgotten victims of a 50-year-long conflict between paramilitaries, guerillas, and the Colombian military and security forces. JRS supports a negotiated resolution of the armed conflict in Colombia and advocates for policies that will lead to a just and sustainable peace.

Violence in some regions of the country has actually worsened during the current peace negotiations as each side attempts to exert their strength, and as paramilitary successor groups become stronger. All sides of the armed conflict should commit to respecting international humanitarian law, particularly during this hopeful peace process. There must be an end to child recruitment, kidnappings, and all acts of sexual violence.

Jesuit Refugee Service programs in Colombia include strengthening human rights protections, psychosocial accompaniment, and community building. JRS pays special attention to the needs of children and young people, as they are frequently targeted by armed groups and forcibly recruited into the conflict.

Violence in Colombia during the last 50 years is the cause of the largest displacement of people in the western hemisphere. The Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement reports the number of people internally displaced by the Colombian conflict since the mid-1980s alone surpasses five million. In addition, more than 600,000 people have fled Colombia into neighboring countries as refugees. 

The beginning of peace talks between the left-wing guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signals that an end to generations of conflict may at last be at hand.

"What gives encouragement now is the end of the armed conflict. Peace negotiations will allow for discussions in Colombia about the structural factors underlying the violence, and the necessity to include diverse positions without fear of being criminalized as in the past," said Luis Fernando Gómez, Regional Advocacy coordinator for Jesuit Refugee Service Latin America and Caribbean.

"As long as the war goes on, strengthening a state-of-emergency mind-set, many political decisions regarding the future of Colombia will continue to be made without respect for individual rights," Gómez said.

Organizing for change

Soacha, a small city close to Bogota, is home to about 35,000 officially registered internally displaced people. The actual number is much higher, as many have registered in Bogota or have been unable to register at all. Anyone who claims to have been displaced by a paramilitary group after 2005 is not allowed to register as displaced, because in 2005 the paramilitary groups were officially disbanded, according to the government. In reality many of them simply reconstituted themselves and continue to wreak havoc.

JRS advocates for access to health care and education for displaced people in Soacha. Despite a national law guaranteeing education through the ninth grade, there is no school past sixth grade in Soacha. It is generally difficult for students to reach school due to inadequate transportation for the children, and the quality of education is often lacking.

Each neighborhood of Soacha has an executive board, similar to a neighborhood advisory council in the U.S., and these boards meet with the mayor to advise him of conditions and advocate for services. Several local women noticed their local board was doing nothing to bring jobs, projects or aid to their neighborhood and decided to do something about it.

JRS helped them to understand their rights and responsibilities, and the women organized themselves and their neighborhood in order to have new members appointed to the board to reinvigorate it and, hopefully, their neighborhood. 

JRS also helped some of the women to grow crops on small plots of land around their homes. The JRS team was instrumental in teaching a group of 26 women how to use organic farming techniques to improve food security for families in their neighborhood.

Each family participating in the project now has a small plot of land on which they plant squash, fruit, tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and other staples. In addition to growing food for their own use, the women are able to grow surplus to sell and trade, thus enabling them to earn extra income.

The large garden plot of Doña Katia*, one of the displaced of Soacha, with its orchids and bonsai trees, papayuellas, mint, squash and other crops, sits in stark contrast to the heavily eroded cliff-side facing it over a dusty valley. Sandstone mining trucks buzz up and down the dirt roads in the valley, the combination of their open loads and churning tires kicking up a red-brown dust that coats skin and is easily inhaled.   

Doña Katia sends a worried glance toward her ten-year-old daughter as the youngster clears her throat and coughs. Many of the children in the community have lung problems attributed to the constant dust from the 30-some mines that pepper the Soacha landscape.  

Only a handful of the mines have permits, the rest are illegally plundering the minerals of the community and causing water contamination and erosion, which leaves the area vulnerable to flooding. 

Access to quality healthcare and adequate education and the services due to displaced people under Colombia's progressive legal framework are principal concerns of the community. As the paramilitary groups encroach on more and more of the urban landscape intra-urban displacement has become a growing problem.  

The FARC are said to still be an ominous presence in the rural territories surrounding Soacha, preying on the local population, forcing them to pay war-taxes and attempting to forcibly recruit young people.                 

On the coast

Between the Western-most range of the Colombian Andes and the Pacific Ocean in the Department of Valle de Cauca lays the city Buenaventura — Colombia's principal port city and also one of its deadliest cities.

Buenaventura has received massive numbers of displaced Colombians in recent years, fleeing violent displacement by armed groups. Buenaventura also has one of the highest rates of intra-urban displacement, and struggles with a 60% unemployment rate. 

"I miss the countryside so much. We used to grow our own food and we could go outside. Now, we hardly have any food, my children are hungry," said a woman displaced from a village in the interior.

The city has become an important strategic location for both guerillas and paramilitaries seeking to capture valuable routes for the shipment of drugs, arms, gold, and other resources along the multitude of rivers that surround the city and empty into the Pacific. 

Don Jose* and Doña Diana* have been displaced on three different occasions from their farm in the northern region of Valle de Cauca during the last 11 years, victims of armed groups on both sides. During their last encounter with a paramilitary group, Don Jose was kidnapped and tortured; his wife, seven months pregnant at the time, searched frantically for her husband while he was held.

As the couple begins to tell their story they begin to cry, each trapped in their separate pains, still living the nightmare of their separation, of the terror, of the fracturing of their family and their faith; they are unable to offer comfort to one another.  

"I lost my baby two months after she was born. I blame the stress of our trauma. I blame myself for her death," Doña Diana explains. She added that she believes the baby, surrounded by heartbreak and grief, decided she no longer wanted to live.

Don Jose is still caught in the nightmare of his torture, repeating in gasps the details of the ordeal he has conveyed to his wife and children countless times before. 

"He kept crying and crying, no one would help or listen to his story, but JRS listened," Doña Diana said. JRS has been accompanying the family for more than two years through the legal process as they seek aid for their displacement.

A psychiatrist who counsels the family said their case is typical of the trauma haunting many of the displaced in Buenaventura. The continued violence within the town and the dearth of resources for the affected individuals prevents these torture and trauma survivors from reaching full recovery even years after the underlying events occurred.

"Sometimes I can’t stop crying when I think of what happened to me," said Don Jose, recalling his kidnapping. "I can’t understand why a country as resource-rich as Colombia has to be at war. If we were not at war, we would be a rich country."

Along the rivers

In three communities along the jungle-shrouded rivers outside of Buenaventura, JRS provides food security and educational activities and advocates with government agencies on behalf of the residents.

The rivers flow through areas controlled by several armed groups, and both those groups and the government impose a curfew: no one is to be on the river after 6 p.m. or before 6 a.m. This restriction hampers the lives of the villages, as their main source of food and income is from fishing the abundant rivers.

JRS assists the residents of Palestina by providing three food kits each month, and helping them to grow crops on higher ground away from the river. The corn and bean crops are grown for local consumption, and they aim to grow enough to trade or sell surplus to other communities, and thus bring in much-needed cash to their own.

Education for the children of the community is a priority for JRS. Supplies and equipment have been donated to the school, and tanks for potable water were supplied to collect and filter rainwater. Additionally, JRS has painted the school and begun classes there, and is working to build the capacity of adults in the village to run the school.

Up the river from Palestina is Santa Rosa de Guayacan, home to indigenous people. The villagers here complain that aerial fumigation — which the government claims is necessary to fight the drug trade — is the source of illness.

The aerial spraying affects both legal and illegal crops, destroying tracts of land where the villagers are trying to grow only corn or beans. Additionally, the deadly chemicals often fall into the river, contaminating fish and the drinking supply, coating the skin of children who play along the riverbank and causing rashes and illness. 

Unfortunately many people in the region are resigned to fumigation and wonder "Why plant crops? They’ll be fumigated next week and die." It’s been postulated that fumigation is targeted toward mining areas so the affected people will leave, and mining concerns can then move in more easily.

Mines push people from their land

Illegal mining operations are proliferating as armed groups expand their operations. It is much easier for the armed groups to move minerals illegally taken into the legitimate mineral market than it is to move illegal drugs to the illegal drug market.

Mines often operate in areas not controlled by the government, and the few times mining machines have been stopped are when local communities rallied and did it themselves. In retaliation, community leaders have been killed.

The mining operations are unregulated and destructive, contributing to natural disasters. The destruction of trees and the subsequent exposure of unprotected soil means many areas are now flooding that never flooded before.

In mining areas there has been an increase in malnutrition, poor health and low food security, with a lack of food choices. Entire communities are vanishing. Their losses are not officially registered as a displacement event, but it is nonetheless clear that mines are driving people from their land.

The arts of resistance

Afro-Colombian men and women in their twenties are leading a movement to resist violence and displacement. JRS has partnered with their group in an effort to prevent the use and recruitment of children into armed groups.

Calling themselves Faces and Footprints, this collective of musicians, poets and painters inaugurated their organization after a brutal massacre of athletes and artists in the Punta del Este community of Buenaventura. One of the artists described with horror the kidnapping and dismemberment of the young community leaders of this neighborhood.  

In 2005, 12 youth between 17 and 23 years old were playing their regular soccer game. An armed group promised that if they played for them, they would be paid. The young men were loaded into a truck and driven away. Their bodies were later found along the highway every few miles, showing signs of torture. There was no explanation.

"We decided we must find a way to resist," said one of the founders of the collective. "We use music, art, poetry, hip-hop and dance. Our goal is to show the young people of our city that there are better people to admire than the guerillas, gangsters, and paramilitaries who run our town. We resist. We resist the violence. We fight for peace,” he said.

"I have seen dead bodies, seen dead friends, seen friends disappear and their heads or hands show up a week later," said another member of the group. 

"There was a time when all I thought about was alcohol or weapons," he continued. "I’m a singer, and I was told by a man in the neighborhood that I should come to a workshop to learn how to record. I was interested, but also bored."

Then he went to a conference in Bogota, and saw young people talking about change and improving the world. "I thought, ‘damn, what am I doing with my life?' I came back and started to write. I started to put all my energy into rebuilding the community, resisting the social control we are under today."

The members of Faces and Footprints are leading an outreach effort to elementary aged children in Buenaventura, employing audio-visual tools to teach children about their right to live in peace, free from fear.  

These young men and women struggle for a Buenaventura where their voices are valued and where they are free from the horror of massacres and targeted assassinations.

"We seek to give voice to our reality," says another founder of the group, a young woman in her late 20s. 

“We call on the pride we have in our ancestors who were once enslaved but who built this city. This is our home, and we want a brighter future — a future free of homicide, of racial injustice, of displacement. We don’t believe that is too much to ask." 

Recommendations for Action:

• Real peace-building in Colombia requires the participation of the victims of the armed conflict and its consequences. The government should look for ways to include civil society more directly, especially when peace talks get to the final point on the negotiating agenda: victims.

• The Colombian government should continue to search for ways to include civil society in the peace process. The creation of the Conversation Table, an online platform through which citizens and civil society organizations can submit proposals to be considered by negotiators and the working groups convened by UNHCR and the National University is encouraging. However, the government of Colombia should do more to include civil society, and organizations representing internally displaced people and refugees, in the peace process.

• The Colombian government should be particularly attentive to protecting community leaders from targeted violence during the peace negotiations. Protecting returned communities from attacks by groups opposed to land restitution is crucial for ending the displacement crisis.

• The 2010 Victims Law was a significant victory for survivors of the armed conflict, but it contains some serious flaws. Under current interpretation of the law, victims of paramilitary successor groups are not eligible for assistance. A better reading of the protections and rights included in the law would offer assistance, but not reparations, to victims of groups who succeeded paramilitary groups. The U.S. government should encourage the Colombian government to adopt and implement this interpretation.  

• The international community should not decrease their presence in Colombia prematurely if the peace process is successful. Instead they should seek opportunities to ensure a durable peace. UNHCR’s Transitional Solutions Initiative should be fully funded and supported by the U.S. and others. The Initiative seeks to permanently integrate displaced people who do not wish to return to their place of origin into their new communities.

Names have been changed for their safety.                                    

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