Heliodoro Sánchez: The Displaced Communities


Heliodoro Sánchez is a representative from Chocó (an Afro-Colombian region) who was forced out of his homeland, along with his community, in 1997, at a time when the community was working to obtain the collective land rights that had been guaranteed in the 1991 Colombian Constitution.

First, I bring greetings on behalf of the Communities of Return of Cacarica, and I would like to thank those who have been so kind as to invited me to participate in this conference. The truth is, the time we have assigned to participate in this conference is very short to tell our story in this beautiful city. I am from a group of displaced from the Cacarica basin, municipality of Riosucio, department of Chocó, temporarily settled in Bahía Cupica.

It’s a very long story, let’s see if I am able to summarize it in a way that enables you to gain insight into the real situation of the displaced in Colombia. On Feb. 24, 1997, at 6 am, Kfir planes appeared, circling the area of Salaquí and Cacarica, bombing first in Salaquí, and then in Cacarica. There are military bases in both places. Then, along the roads we use to visit the residents and our families, they let loose the “flesh-eating dogs.” When I speak “flesh-eating dogs,” I’m speaking precisely of the paramilitaries. They arrived in various of our communities, inhabited for the last 500 years by our ancestors.

And they massacred some of our brothers in the cruelest possible fashion, torturing them, taking someone alive, as I am right here and now, and cutting off their limbs, joint by joint, to the point of leaving only the trunk; castrating a human being, alive, just to terrorize the civilian population; and then removing the head from the body, and inviting the population, including the elderly, women, and children, to play soccer with it. This is something we experienced—not a story we were told--but our experience.

The community was given an order by the paramilitaries, with only 24 hours to leave their land. Later 70 community leaders were killed or disappeared. 8,000 people fled in terror. Of those who ran to the Panama border, some spent 15 days lost in the jungle; others arrived in a week. [Heliodoro Sánchez spoke of the community’s experience in Panama, of being taken away in helicopters. They were promised various services from the Colombian government if they returned to Colombia, but they received almost no support. They came back to Colombia in 1997, to a property owned by an associate of Pablo Escobar, and have been living in conditions that were utterly inhumane, with plastic sheeting for houses.]

We, as the displaced in Colombia, don’t know what President Pastrana’s policy is to the displaced. We understand he has obtained loans in the United States. But we propose this be invested in social investment, which is what we really need. Obviously we’re with peace, but first we need to look at other unmet needs, such as education, nutrition, health, housing, among others. Peace will never exist until these needs are met. When there is equality, which we’ve been struggling for, that’s when there will be peace.

The displaced people have drawn up a proposal for the government, which consists of five points: truth, liberty, justice, brotherhood and solidarity. There must be justice, to punish those who have carried out such infamy. There must be community with the mother earth who has opened her arms to us. The Chocó is facing ecocide. The proposals of the displaced people have been ignored; the title to the land has been promised but not delivered.

Overview of forced displacement

The Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES) released figures in November indicating that 1,850,000 Colombians have been displaced from their homes by the armed violence. In the first nine months of 1999, 225,000 peasants were forced to abandon their lands. CODHES stated that 39.6% left under threat, 23.7% out of fear, 19.7% as a result of massacres, and 6.20% due to confrontations between armed groups. Other causes include the disappearance of neighbors, attacks on the infrastructure, and aerial attacks. On analyzing who is responsible, CODHES found that 47% of the cases are attributed to the self-defense (paramilitary) groups, 35% to the guerrillas, 8% to the military forces, and 7% to unknown actors. (From summary in El Colombiano, 11/24/99.) For more resources and information on forced displacement in Colombia, visit the CODHES web site, at www.codhes.org.co, as well as the web site for the U.S. Committee for Refugees, www.refugees.org.


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