COLOMBIA: 8 million and counting
According to the United Nations, over the past sixty years and in a period of stable, democratic governments, abuses and violence associated with Colombia’s internal armed conflict have driven more than eight million Colombians from their homes, generating the world’s largest population of internally displaced persons (IDPs). More than in Syria, Iraq or any other war zone. Mostly fleeing from rural to urban areas, Colombian IDPs are estimated to represent nearly 15 percent of the entire population and to have left behind 8 million hectares of land —14% of Colombia’s territory and roughly the area of Portugal— much of which multinational corporations and armed groups have grabbed and continue to hold in a bloody dispute for political control, economic power, and land ownership. Dispossessed from their land and livelihoods, many Colombian IDPs “will remain in the poverty trap for several generations,” affirms economist Ana María Ibáñez.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have labelled the problem of Colombian IDPs as one of the world’s forgotten crises. It highlights that a disproportionate number of IDPs are either Afro-Colombians or indigenous people and nearly half of displaced families are headed by women, who assume social and economic responsibility for their families due to a combination of factors, including the assassination of their husbands; family ruptures caused by the tensions of uprooting; the burden of an anonymous life in urban areas; and new labor dynamics in the cities that destroy the traditional rural gender division of labor. Uprooting affects traditionally isolated peasant women more harshly than men. “The rupture of their intimate bonds with close kin and neighbors, their lack of social and geographical mobility before displacement, and the threat of family disintegration all constitute significant obstacles to the reconstruction of women’s life projects in a new, urban environment,” says Donny Meertens of The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).
According to the ICTJ, in recent years, sexual violence has become a clear strategy of war aimed at destroying many matrilineal Colombian communities, forcing women to leave their regions. Although in their so-called free confessions, members of the paramilitary forces admitted to massacres and assassinations, they did not do so for sexual violence, forced displacement, or land seizures. “They killed, it was acknowledged, but it was ‘the people’s decision to displace themselves and abandon their land’,” says Meertens. At the moment, the main actors responsible for displacement are the so-called BACRIM (short for bandas criminales, criminal bands) organized by former paramilitary members involved in drug trafficking, the guerrilla, and government forces.
Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is the city that registers the highest number of IDPs in the world but doesn’t have a plan to deal with the increasingly urbanized violence, despite the post-conflict era that has just inconspicuously taken off after the signing in November 2016 of a milestone peace agreement between the government and the FARC guerrilla. During the last Presidential election campaign, a couple of hundred displaced people set up camp in Plaza Bolivar, the main square in Bogota, to draw attention to their plight. Many of the displaced were driven from their homes decades ago and are demanding more help from the state. Some of them are asking for financial compensation from the authorities, while others want help finding a new place where to live. Most had to leave their homes with only the things they could carry and have not dared return while the conflict continues. IDPs are not a population that has suffered from the collateral effects of armed conflict, and therefore should be the object of humanitarian assistance (that different institutions have badly provided in the last years), but a group that has been directly victimized by conflict, whose rights were violated and should therefore be restored.
The displaced people remained in Plaza Bolivar for more than three weeks and were forced to leave the square two days before the first round of Presidential Elections and after reaching a partial agreement with the municipal authorities that offered each family just $500 dollars of humanitarian help, to be probably received in the future. Few days before they left Plaza Bolivar, the police destroyed their tents put together with plastic bags, sticks and cords, forcing people to spend several nights sleeping on the floor without any protection.
This series was published by BBC in 2014.