After 30 years of fighting, and millions of innocent victims, Colombia's troubles have been largely forgotten by the outside world. But, reports Isabel Hilton, if anything the nightmare is getting worse

MARIA ESTELLA sat on her makeshift wooden bed, a woman in her sixties, her face dark from a lifetime of outdoor work and, now, twisted with pain of her memories. Two of her baby granddaughters lay beside her in the tiny wood and tar paper shack that perched in the hills high above the city of Medellin on what, with a heavy rain, would turn into a mud slide .

Her son Jaime watched anxiously from the doorway as Maria Estella told the story of the day her daughter was cut to pieces by a chainsaw. Maria Estella herself didn't witness the scene. She was out of the house, working. She saw the pieces, though, after she had run home: the head, the arms, the mutilated torso, part eaten by dogs. Her daughter's children had witnessed their mother's murder. They had been at home when the men arrived in their village in the Choco region of Colombia. The children were now in the care of a group of nuns in Medellin, too traumatised still to speak of what they had seen.

Maria Estella's hands moved restlessly in her lap. "It's the debt. I want to go back and pay the debt," she sobbed. She and all her family had fled their homes, leaving her daughter's funeral expenses unpaid. Now Maria Estella was marooned in this shanty-town, still keeling at her loss. Perhaps if she could pay the debt, she thought, her daughter's spirit might be at peace.

"I owe the money for the funeral." The old woman broke down, weeping. "People will talk. They will say I left a debt. How can my daughter rest when people say things like that?" Jaime butted in. "If she goes back," he said, "she will be killed, too. They will torture her, make her tell where the rest of the family is." He sat down beside his mother and lowered his voice. "She was a hard-working peasant all her life," he said. "But here there's nothing any of us can do to earn money. I am the only one with any work. Even here, it's not safe. There are people here who ask questions. None of us are safe."

Maria Estella's daughter was not the first to die in that family and Jaime lives with the fear that she might not be the last. A year ago, Maria Estella's son-in-law was taken, along with his teenaged son. The family know who their persecutors are. The style of Maria Estella's daughter's murder - dismemberment with a chainsaw - has become the trademark of the extreme right-wing paramilitaries, the latest group in Colombia to practice terror on a civilian population that has been caught in the crossfire of civil war for more than 30 years. For most of the last three decades, a series of ineffectual governments have fought a losing battle against left-wing guerrillas. The FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) with 6,000 fighters and the ELN (the National Liberation Army) with 9,000. Between them they now control some 40 per cent of Colombia's territory. And recently, with the arrival of the paramilitaries, the war has taken an even more savage turn. The paramilitaries are irregular and self-appointed men of violence who have taken it upon themselves to bring about what the Colombian army has proved incapable of achieving - the defeat of the guerrillas. Maria Estella and her family are not guerrillas. They were farmers cultivating yucca and plantain and raising a few animals on a small farm. Now they are slum dwellers, crammed on to the Medellin hillside with 3,000 others similarly displaced. But the paramilitary argue that anyone who lives in a guerrilla-controlled zone offers the guerrillas actual or potential support. The solution, then, is to drive the civilians out. A few well chosen acts of terror and a warning to leave are usually enough to empty a village. Justification for their actions comes in the form of a quote from Chairman Mao: the guerrilla, Mao said, depends on the people as a fish depends on the sea. Drain the sea, the paramilitary argue, and the fish will die. The family's neighbours in this settlement of despair in Medellin, named, with tragic inappropriateness, Mano de Dios, the Hand of God, tell similar stories. In Colombia, more than a million people, one in 40 of the population, have been driven from their homes in this silent holocaust.

In communities like Mano de Dios, they whisper their stories because they know that the men with chainsaws are not far off. They struggle to organise, to press their case to the government for protection, for compensation, for justice. In sporadic raids, masked men arrive and kill the latest leader to attempt to organise the displaced. Even here, destitute as they are, the persecution continues. Colombia is a country that has known little peace this century and people like Maria Estella and her family have borne the brunt of repeated waves of warfare. In the Fifties, la Violencia, an undeclared civil war between the two ruling parties, the Liberal and the Conservatives, claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced thousands off their land. Community leaders were assassinated then, too, and peasants fled the violence to colonise new land in Colombia's virgin forests. Now it is the children of those settlers who are being driven out. The pretext is the war against the guerrillas, but behind that excuse lies an older reason - the land itself, and the riches that lie beneath it.

PARAMILITARY groups are not new in a country that has earned its reputation as the world's most violent. Hired guns were used by large landowners in the Fifties to murder peasant leaders and demoralise peasant organisations. Without organisation, the peasants were easy to drive from their land. In the early Nineties, when left-wing guerrillas took to kidnapping Colombia's wealthy drug lords and cattle ranchers, they employed hired guns to protect themselves. Now the hired guns have outgrown their role as bodyguards and taken on a national crusade.

The founding myth of the paramilitary groups centres on two brothers, Fidel and Carlos Castano. It says that their father, a cattle rancher in the Magdalena Medio, was murdered by the FARC when he refused to pay their "vaccination" - protection money that has been a staple of guerrilla fundraising. The brothers vowed revenge and took up arms against the guerrillas. Their organisation grew and Carlos Castano now claims to head a national organisation of paramilitary groups. Known by the acronym ACCU-AUC, it is, in effect, a private army which is succeeding where the national army has failed. But there is a less heroic version of the tale. According to a Colombian intelligence service report, dated April last year, Carlos Castano is supported by a cartel of cocaine bosses. His propaganda claims he is fighting the guerrillas on behalf of the people, but his victims say his is a reign of terror.

The Castano brothers began their campaign in their home province of Antioquia. There, large numbers of people were forced from their homes. Peasants fled, bringing with them their stories of paramilitary terror. Men would arrive in the villages, they said, commit some atrocity and give the terrified peasants hours or days to get out. If they didn't obey it was made clear the consequences would be terrible. Then other stories began to circulate: that, as they fled, men would approach them and make them offers for the land - offers so ridiculously low that no peasant would consider them in other circumstances. But, fleeing a massacre, their children on their backs, some would agree to sell.

Across the city of Medellin from the slums of Mano de Dios, researchers in the IPC (Instituto Popular de Capacitacion), a non-governmental organisation, have been tracking the paramilitary activity. They unroll a series of meticulously drawn maps. One set shows areas in which land is valuable - owing to rich mineral deposits or because big infrastructure projects are planned. The second set of maps shows the areas from which people have been driven by paramilitary activity. The two sets of maps coincide, almost exactly. Earlier this year, the director of the IPC and several of his staff were kidnapped by paramilitaries and held for three weeks. A fortnight ago, the offices were bombed.

Almost all of Colombia's cities are now crammed with refugees from the terror. In the capital, Bogota, the sports hall of the National University is full of the detritus of displacement - mattresses on the floor, washing hanging from makeshift lines, black bin bags crammed with possessions. Outside, a temporary kitchen feeds the displaced.

One of the young men, who gave his name as Isidro, confirmed IPC's observations. He was, he told me, from Magdalena Medio, along the mid stretches of the Magdalena river. The river flows through some of Colombia's richest and most strategic territory. Magdalena Medio was also a stronghold of both the ELN, and the FARC. Now it had become the scene of some of the bloodiest massacres in the war. As many as 21,000 people, like Isidro, had been driven out of Magdalena Medio over the previous two years. The attraction of his land, he said, was the gold that he, like hundreds of others, had worked as artisan miners. "The paramilitary say they want to fight the guerrillas, but the real motive is gold. They came to our village and cut off the head of a miner in front of everybody. Then they said that there was going to be big investment in the region and that we had to get out," he said.

The people fled where they could - some to Bogota, others up river to the oil town of Barrancabermeja. They wanted government protection so that they could return to their land, but even in Barrancabermeja they were not safe. On 16 May of last year, three trucks of paramilitary arrived in a district in the north-east of the city as the local people were attending a fundraiser for their football team. The men killed seven on the spot and 27 others were taken away. They were never heard of again.

The sense of terror still hangs over the place, and worse nightmares are whispered. Carlos Castano announced that the victims had been killed, the bodies burned and the remains thrown in the river. But in this Baranca suburb, people tell you other stories - how, for instance, Maria Alejandra screamed as she was fed to Castano's crocodiles. Whether the story is true or not is unimportant. What matters is that it reinforces the terror.

UP RIVER from Barrancabermeja, in the little town of San Pablo - where schools had been turned into emergency refugee camps and the town square had become a soup kitchen - Sub-lieutenant Edgar Parra of the Colombian army sat in what remained of the police station after a guerrilla attack a year earlier. He explained why the army could not protect the civilians from either the guerrillas or the paramilitary. "It's difficult," he said. "The people don't help. Most of them think when the army is coming that we're coming to dig up their coca bushes, so they don't give us any information." The refugees see it differently. "The army and the paramilitary - they work together," they told me.

The evidence is not hard to find. When the paramilitary committed a massacre in Meta, in southern Colombia last year, the army provided them with helicopters. Up in the Choco, near the Panamanian border, I was told of paramilitary squads arriving on army boats, and on the Magdalena river, just north of San Pablo, a paramilitary group was in operation only a mile or so from an army base. It all feeds the suspicion that a demoralised army - or at least some army commanders - are happy to see the paramilitary take over their job. Sub-lieutenant Parra had insisted that there were no paramilitary groups on his patch and that the guerrillas (whose territory begins on the edge of San Pablo) had themselves organised the displacement of more than 20,000 people from Magdalena Medio as a means of putting pressure on the government. But four hours' bone-shaking drive up a dirt road brought me to the town of Monterrey where a battle had taken place between the guerrillas and the paramilitary.

The road, in places hardly passable for vehicles, wound its passage through a thickly-wooded hills. In the distance lay the Serrania de San Lucas, the richest gold reserves in Colombia. It was from there that the hundreds of goldminers had been driven out by the paramilitary. Monterrey was half deserted. Outside a little pink and white chapel on the main square, a white Red Cross Land-Rover was parked. The Red Cross representative was retching violently by the foot of the chapel wall. An overpowering smell of decomposition leaked out from the chapel's open door and hung over the square. Inside, laid out in a neat row, were the bodies of five men. The cause of death was not hard to see: one man's head was half blown away, the rest all showed the ravages of high-calibre bullets. They were dressed in army fatigues. On the ground, by the door, lay a black armband with the letters ACNUR stencilled in white. The Red Cross representative had been summoned by the guerrillas to remove the bodies. Around the corner, at the entrance to the town, the victorious guerrillas were resting. Their commander, Gerardo Guevara, invited me to their camp in the hills, not far from the town. "Did you see the bodies?" he asked. "The army says there are no paramilitary here. We gave them a hard time," he said.

The FARC camp lay in a pleasant meadow beside a fast flowing river. A group of men were gathered under a stand of trees. As we approached, I saw that Colombia's most feared guerrillas were watching television. I sat there, surrounded by men in battle fatigues, watching the advertisements for hair conditioner that punctuated the news. There was a murmur of professional interest when the news turned to fighting and the guerrillas checked out the weapons that were in use. Beside me, on an improvised table, were displayed the trophies of the previous day's battle: the weapons and ammunition captured from the paramilitary, along with the personal effects of the dead. Some of the guerrillas were picking over the booty, making comparisons with their own kit. Gerardo, the commander, leafed through the dead men's personal papers. One of them had been an army reservist, not unusual in itself, but confirmation, for Gerardo, of his thesis. "The army and the paramilitary are one and the same," he said. The paramilitary had begun to kill peasants in the region. "Since then there have been threats - anonymous calls to landowners and traders saying they would be killed if they didn't abandon their land. It's all about the gold in the hills," he added. "The multi-national mining companies couldn't come in here because of the guerrillas, the state can't guarantee their security. They made an agreement with Castano to take control and they do that by killing the people and clearing them off their land."

Six months later the town of San Pablo fell to Castano's forces. Those displaced families that had returned to Magdalena Medio, on the promise of government protection, found themselves prisoners of the paramilitary. Now the region is a no-go area for outside NGOs and government forces. It is not only in Magdalena Medio that the battle is thought to be over resources. In the Choco, that has been a stronghold of the ELN guerrillas, there are plans for infrastructure development across the narrow neck of land just south of the Panamanian border. A new canal is under discussion, as well as new roads and a rail link that will open the region to trade with the outside. When the paramilitary forces began attacking villages in the region thousands fled to Turbo, a small port on the Caribbean coast. The town had been under guerrilla control until the paramilitary captured it two years ago. Here, as in other regions, the victims show little sympathy for either side in the conflict. "The guerrillas come in," complained one displaced man, "they implicate us, then they go. Then the paramilitary come in and they kill us because they say we support the guerrillas. There are all these men with guns, but they are not the ones who are dying. We are the ones who are dying."

The headquarters of the paramilitary force is only 50 miles to the north- east of Turbo. A local priest acted as intermediary. By the priest's account, life had improved. "A year ago," he said, "this was a ghost town. Now people have come back, opened businesses." What were the paramilitary like to deal with? The priest became evasive. "They're up in the mountains," he said, "we don't see much of them." A few minutes later, a knock at the door signalled that Castano's men had kept their appointment.

A half-hour drive out of town, we came to a small village. The reception committee consisted of a woman dressed in fatigues, who introduced herself as Chabel, and a paunchy, bearded man in civilian clothes. His name, he said, was Ernesto Baez. He was, he claimed, political advisor to the paramilitary leadership. Ernesto was a lawyer by training and had been a sympathiser with the guerrillas until the mid-Eighties. Then, he said, he had seen the light. "I saw their brutality and the way they want to impose their Marxist-Leninism on everybody," he said.

He talked with theatrically of his struggle, of his revulsion at the brutality of the war. "I want social change," he shouted, "but I am not a Marxist." His fist crashed on to the table. "I am a social democrat," he shouted. It seemed an unlikely choice. I asked him about the massacres that had been widely attributed to the paramilitary, their reputation for appalling brutality and the accusation that they were driving people off their land for economic, not political reasons. He embarked on a protracted circumlocution. "This is a brutal and an irregular war," he concluded. "A horrible war. And all sides may have been guilty of incidents of the kind you refer to. But we do not drive people out. When we go into a village it is after a highly sophisticated intelligence operation that has lasted, in some cases, a year. We know who has collaborated with the guerrillas. If you go into a small shop and you find three tons of rice, you know that man is selling to the guerrillas. Those who abandon their homes do so because of the guerrillas or because they are guerrillas. These things are," he paused, "regrettable."

Chabel and Ernesto invited me to visit the paramilitary training camp. We drove into the hills through cattle-ranching country, along a well maintained dirt road frequently crossed by heavy wooden gates. In the neat and well-equipped camp, some 30 young men in immaculate uniforms and highly polished boots were about to have lunch. "Here," Ernesto announced, "the officers learn about international humanitarian law and human rights."

Ernesto explained his own theory of the violence in Colombia. "The biggest obstacle to peace," he said, "is that the war is profitable. The guerrilla's revenues from drug-trafficking, kidnapping and looting have been tremendous. I don't think they are prepared to give it up." The paramilitary, he insisted, were fighting merely out of patriotic duty, saving the country from the forces of the left. It was time the government recognised them as a legitimate force and included them in the peace negotiations that the president Andres Pastrana, was trying to initiate with the guerrillas. Ernesto got one of his wishes. The government has begun to talk officially to the paramilitary group. It has not stopped their killing spree though: the much loved journalist Jaime Garzon's death last month, assassinated apparently because of his association with the peace talks, was only the latest and most high profile killing. Since then, a death list naming others who have played a similar role as honest brokers for peace has been circulated in Bogota. The peace negotiations, the only real hope for Colombia's displaced, are already stalled, drug production is soaring and President Pastrana's popularity is sinking as Colombia enters a recession. Last month, the death of five US soldiers in a helicopter crash highlighted the fact that there are now 200 US military advisers in Colombia and the country now receives $289m a year in military aid, the third largest recipient after Israel and Egypt.

But the funds have made no difference to the conduct of the war, or to a civilian population that is still defenceless. All over Colombia, communities hope to return to their land, but cannot without some guarantee of protection. Some have proclaimed themselves "peace communities" and have tried to force all the men at arms - the guerrillas, the paramilitary and the army - to acknowledge their neutrality in this endless conflict and leave them alone. It is a desperate and hazardous move. In one such community, from La Union in north-west Colombia, 54 people have been killed since the community made its plea for neutrality. Their spokesman was the most recent victim, murdered by a paramilitary band.

It is estimated that in recent years over 1.3 million Colombians have been displaced from their homes by the war. Through its local partner organisations, Christian Aid is helping thousands of displaced people by attending to their needs for food, shelter, basic sanitation and clean water. It also supports the efforts of local organisations to secure the Colombian government's support for the displaced.

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