Colombia's Internally Displaced

by Barbara Gerlach

Displaced FamiliesRemember building block towers as a child and pulling out one block and watching the whole structure crash to the ground? This summer I saw the results of this kind of destruction on a massive social scale in Colombia. Whole communities uprooted, a lifetime of work wiped out as paramilitaries, funded by large landowners, business interests, and drug cartels, have gone into resource-rich areas of Colombia and told its inhabitants they have three days to "clean the zone."

With a human rights delegation focusing on Colombia's displaced, I visited an area known as Uraba, to the east of the Panama/Colombia border, where the conflict among army, guerrilla, and paramilitary groups is generating a mass displacement and an urgent need for emergency humanitarian aid. There are about 10,000 newly-displaced in Uraba alone. This is a resource-rich area, with many banana plantations, oil, coal, gold, a mega-plan for development which includes a "dry canal" consisting of a transcontinental truck route south of the Panama Canal, two new ports on the Gulf of Turbo, and a road to the sea extending the Pan American Highway. It is also an important strategic point where drugs leave and arms enter the country. The Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, and poor campesinos who have lived in this coastal area for centuries, are the casualties of this struggle for land and power. Bombs drop, troops kill and intimidate, and the residents flee.

I visited San Jose de Apartado, a rural community of about 850 displaced, after most of its previous 1,500 residents fled an earlier wave of violence. This community has declared itself a "community of peace" and pledged to remain neutral with respect to all the armed parties. They are hungry and afraid, under constant military surveillance and intimidation from the paramilitaries, cannot go to their fields to plant or harvest, and have been told that they will be killed if they enter the cacao cooperative or use the processing equipment they received from an organization in Holland.

I visited two sites in Turbo that have about 3,000 displaced and more arriving every day. Many are living in a stadium or in plastic shelters without enough food, water, or medical care. The Catholic Church has built a shelter off the back of one of its churches and has moved some of the families with children to this much more humane living situation. We took testimony from the displaced about their flight through the jungle, fording rivers, and the dismal living conditions they now endure. They asked us to pressure the international community for accompaniment to protect them, humanitarian aid to help them survive, and a peace process to bring the warring parties in Colombia to the negotiating table.

Human rights groups estimate that there are about 1,000,000 displaced in Colombia: About 1/3 live in and around Bogota, and every day more are arriving from almost every part of the country. At least 180,000 were displaced in 1996. Some have resettled in a semi-urban community called Usme, springing up the side of the mountains south of Bogota. I was able to visit this area and meet some of the displaced families with the Mennonites and the Inter-Congregational Commission for Justice and Peace, which is funded by 55 Catholic orders.

The good news is that I found the Church in Colombia--both the Catholic and the Mennonite--functioning at a very high level, documenting the human rights violations, working as a force for peace, and responding to the overwhelming needs of the displaced. It only takes three days to clear a zone and destroy a way of life, but it will take many years, millions of dollars, and an "underground railroad" of church workers to help the displaced Colombians rebuild their lives.