Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Displaced Blood, Tears and Sweat

By: Ayleen Cabas Mijares
Produced & Edited By: Megan Laird

© Courtesy of El Pais
“They go to any village and kill around 30 people. Then some of them play soccer with the heads of the murdered while their partners wander around raping women and children. The villagers who stay must pay the price. ‘Give us your land or we’ll negotiate with your widow’ is a catchphrase among these barbarians.”

Professor Martha Gutierrez serenely describes the horrifying experience many victims share in Colombia. After more than 50 years of armed conflict, Colombians are used to these kinds of stories, and Gutierrez knows them well after interviewing hundreds of internally displaced people (IDP) for her research at the Pontifical Javeriana University, in Bogotá.

Forced displacement depicts the humanitarian crisis Colombia currently experiences. According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), there are 5.7 million IDPs in the country, which represents almost 85% of the armed conflict victims and more than 10% of Colombia’s population. Moreover, this is the second highest rate of internal displacement in the world, as reported by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

However, there is a group among the IDPs whose particularly intense struggle sets it apart from the rest: Afro Colombians. Their low income and education level, and their dependence on natural resources, make them the most vulnerable community when it comes to forced displacement, according to Jeroen Carrin, an official of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Displaced Afro Colombians deal with unemployment, discrimination and hunger in the cities.

In The Crossfire
Gutierrez explains Colombia’s geography as vast and complex. Therefore, the State has never been able to extend its presence in the whole country. “This lack of control over the territory, the social inequalities that still exist nowadays and the rise of communist armed groups in the 60s were the breeding ground for the armed conflict,” Gutierrez says.

Four armed groups clash to gain political, economic and/or military control over resource-rich lands of many remote regions. The first group are the guerrillas, left-wing groups with political ambitions. The second group is composed of paramilitary forces, presumably connected to some entrepreneurs and government officials who try to protect their lands and wealth from the guerrillas. Drug cartels also own their place in the conflict, and finally the Colombian Army constitutes the only legal organization involved in the conflict.

© Courtesy of ICRC Colombia
Impoverished peasants dwell in the “battlefields” and often become casualties of the conflict. The survivors have two options: escape to other regions or stay and pay fees (what they commonly refer to as “vaccines”) to the armed groups in order to keep their lands —and their lives.

“Three years ago I had to escape from my village. I just knew those men would kill me,” Carlos Mora says. He was a fisherman and, after missing the deadline for one of the vaccines, he fled to Cali with his family. “Many friends of mine were killed in my village. I wasn’t letting that happen to us.”

Mora never identified who terrorized his hometown. According to Gutierrez, it is likely that they were paramilitaries. “They are the cruelest group operating in this conflict. Paramilitaries occupy territories just to keep their criminal way of life going,” she says.

Victimized… Again
Problems continue when people abandon their lands. The dynamics of the cities are diametrically different from those in rural areas. Jeroen Carrin is based in Cali, the city with the third largest displaced population in Colombia and the main host of displaced Afro Colombians. “Their livelihoods are inextricably linked to the land. When forcibly removed from natural resources, they become dependent on aid,” he says.

© Courtesy of ICRC Colombia
Mauricio Castaño, responsible of the Humanitarian Assistance Department of the ICRC in Cali, says it is almost impossible for displaced Afro Colombians to find a job since their abilities do not fit in the city’s occupation market. “Lots of peasants are illiterate and they are not used to the concept of work shifts,” Castaño says.

Additionally, IDPs have to handle with the locals’ prejudices. “I would never hire one of them. They are running for a reason, right? They just bring problems,” Camila Sanchez says. The opinion of this laundry owner from Bogota is shared by many others. “The armed conflict is an alien phenomenon for people in the cities. Some of them believe IDPs are criminals,” Gutierrez avers.

In his first year in Cali, Mora was not able to get a stable job and he lived on a day by day basis. “I did some construction work but I was not agile enough,” Mora remembers. A friend of his informed him about the ICRC occupational programs in which he could complete a bakery course.
ICRC officials also helped Mora find a job in a bakery. “I liked it but the 12 hour shift was too much for me,” he says. Now he works for a company that sells frozen food. “I want to guarantee my children’s education. I do not want them to go through the same things I did.”

No Simple Solution
© Courtesy of ICRC Colombia
Although Colombia developed a widely celebrated legal framework and institutions which defend the victims’ rights, many IDPs have not received adequate aid from the government. The scarcity of human and monetary resources is a problem cited by many government officials, but Castaño adds corruption to the issue. “The money assigned to some municipalities to help IDPs magically disappears,” he says.

Furthermore, land restitution processes demand a lot of effort from the victims. “The displaced have to prove their ownership over their lands so the State restitutes them. Many IDPs have never had property documents or had lost their ownership after trespassing their lands to an armed group,” Gutierrez explains.

Land restitution may not be the solution, though. According to CODHES, almost 80% of the IDPs do not want to return to their hometowns because they feel safer in the cities. The ICRC proposes the development of integral plans that facilitate the social and labor inclusion of victims into Colombian society. “The government should provide access to skills training and employment opportunities,” Carrin opines.

No comments: