Colombians Struggle to Recover After Decades of Conflict
The first in Refugees Deeply’s series “Returnees” finds that peace has come too late for many among the nearly 7 million Colombians displaced by fighting from the fields into the city slums.
A half-century of conflict has left Colombia with a string of unwanted superlatives. The longest insurgency in the Americas ended in September 2016 when left-wing guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced the beginning of a bilateral cease-fire with the government. It leaves behind 220,000 dead and nearly 7 million people forced from their homes. There are more internally displaced people in Colombia than in Syria.
Jorge Ariza is one of them. He was, like the majority of the conflict’s victims, a peasant farmer, or campesino. It was a life of hard toil in Chaparral, Tolima, a hamlet nestled in Colombia’s central mountain range, long held by FARC rebels. He and his family farmed yuca, the starchy vegetable eaten across the Andean Cone.
“We never had any problems with the FARC,” Ariza said. “It’s a rural area completely abandoned by the state, and so the people grew up living with the guerrillas, respecting them.”
That changed after the turn of the century when the Colombian military upped its offensive against the rebels. In Ariza’s home area, firefights between the army and rebels became a daily phenomenon.
“I would lay awake at night listening to the sounds of bullets and bombs,” he said. “You can’t live like that; you can’t relax.”
Ariza fled with his two young children in October 2006, after the military tried to coerce him into giving away rebel locations. “It was impossible for us to remain neutral. I didn’t want to help either side.”
Ariza reserves some of the blame for Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia at the time. He came to power promising a “firm hand” against the country’s leftist guerrilla groups. His father, a wealthy landowner, had been murdered by the FARC, and many saw his fervor as personal.
Uribe was true to his word. He ramped up military offensives against rebels hiding in the mountains and jungles, as well as the cities. Paramilitary groups with links to the state – often acting alongside the army – carried out massacres in rebel-dominated areas, pushing out entire communities. The number of people forced from their homes and communities peaked in 2002, when 412,553 people were forcibly displaced.
Since then the conflict has waned. Uribe demobilized the paramilitary umbrella organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in 2006. His successor, President Juan Manuel Santos, launched a tentative peace process with the FARC. Those dialogues, which lasted nearly four years in Havana, Cuba, reached an apparently successful conclusion last week. While Santos’ deal with rebels still needs to be approved by a referendum – the first time in history a peace treaty has been put to the public – many voters are suspicious of the FARC’s intentions.
“I don’t know which [way] to vote, or if I even if I will,” said Ariza. “It’s hard to trust anyone in this conflict.”
Ariza, like so many of those displaced, headed for Bogota, Colombia’s sprawling, smoggy capital city, hoping to make enough money to buy some land in the countryside and return to farming. He rented a home in Ciudad Bolivar, an overcrowded hillside slum. The neglected neighborhood is home to tens of thousands of displaced people, living in shacks of scrap wood and metal, often sheltered from the elements by asbestos roofs – with few even aware of the danger this poses.
Ariza found the adjustment to city life difficult. “Campesinos don’t have the skills for the city, so the only work I could find was in construction.” Those displaced often work in the black economy, constructing ritzy apartment buildings and country houses for Bogota’s wealthy. The work is low-paid and the hours are long. Ariza would make a little less than $9 a day, leaving at 4 a.m. every morning and returning to his children at 11 p.m.
After five years, he gave up hope of returning to the rural yuca fields and resigned himself to raising his children in Ciudad Bolivar. “It’s all I wanted, it was my focus, to get back to the fields, to get back to Tolima, but the money was never there.”
He now leads a community of the displaced in his adopted neighborhood and manufactures and sells cleaning products after years of barely scraping by on his earnings as a construction worker.
Ciudad Bolivar was also home to Olga Betancourt, who works with the National Association of Displaced Persons (ANDESCOL). “It’s a horrible place, because it’s on the outskirts and there’s extreme poverty,” she said in her modest office in downtown Bogota. “It doesn’t feel like you are fully part of the city there.”
Betancourt added that the lack of jobs for residents of Ciudad Bolivar leads many to crime and drug addiction. “You can see the desperation on the streets, people with nothing to do.”
Betancourt’s own story of displacement began in her home village of El Castillo, in Colombia’s eastern plains. It was ransacked by paramilitaries in 2002, and she ended up in the squalor of Ciudad Bolivar. She found a way to survive in the slum and eventually to escape. Many of her fellow villagers did not. “There were 12,000 people in El Castillo, but today only half remain.”
She hopes to return to her home on the plains, as do her family, but she worries about the possibility of repercussions from armed groups there.
There are many cases where communities return home and are either driven out again or murdered, she says. “I remember one case, where a collective of 70 people went back to the fields and all of them were massacred.”
Her organization ANDESCOL works to provide visibility for such vulnerable communities. There is a legal route to reacquiring land stolen by armed groups, though critics says it is ineffective.
Amnesty International has repeatedly called on Colombian authorities to speed up the bureaucratic processes and ensure physical and financial security for those returning.
It concluded a 2014 report on land restitution by saying: “Handing over a land title and sending people on their way is not enough.”
Viviana Ferro, deputy director of Colombia’s governmental unit for victims, argues that that while there is a comprehensive route to register as a victim and reclaim land or receive compensation, the process is long and many are unwilling to submit to it. “Many people fear the stigma that registering as a victim could bring them,” she said in her office overlooking downtown Bogota, with Ciudad Bolivar in the distance. “Or worse, they fear reprisal from the armed groups victimizing them.”
The peace deal, which Betancourt is campaigning in favor of, also promises a fund for returning land to millions of farmers forced to flee but it is conditional on the Havana accords passing a public referendum. The outcome of the vote on October 2 is far from clear.
“If there’s a Yes vote, there will be more resources to get people home. It’s for that reason that we are out in the streets every day getting the message across,” said Betancourt.
But she worries that decades of atrocities, kidnaps, land grabs and conflict has left her country deeply divided: “Lots of people will vote No because they don’t trust the FARC, but they are not the ones forced to run away from war. They are not the ones who will send their children to fight.”
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