Colombia: A long way from home

Fighting on many fronts is turning families into refugees in their own country. Richard McColl reports

Rodrigo (not his real name) sits at the table and looks at his hands as if searching for answers. They are lined and calloused from a life of hard work as a subsistence farmer. Speaking clearly in a steady and measured voice so as not to miss any detail, he mentions his farm more a smallholding on the Colombian Pacific coast. He talks of his 12 hectares where he harvested bananas, papaya and coconuts. And he remembers his small motorised chalupa from which he would fish, and a far-away gaze transports him there.

Home is a long way from this table in the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the south-western city of Cali.

Home is a place he has had to flee, in fear of death by one of the many armed groups that operate in the country. Home is a place he is unlikely to revisit until the complexities that make the Colombian conflict a Byzantine quagmire can be resolved or, at the very least, clarified and unravelled. The Colombian government estimates there could be as many as three million internally displaced people, or IDPs, like Rodrigo in the country.

"Since March 2006 the situation of displaced persons living in remote areas has unfortunately not changed," says Barbara Hintermann, head of the ICRC delegation in Colombia, speaking in the head office in Bogota. "We have assisted more IDPs in 2007 and I believe that next year the situation will be no different."

Statistics compiled by the ICRC show that in 10 years of working with displaced people in Colombia, up to the beginning of 2007 they have assisted one million people, and between January and September of this year they assisted 54,703 people. That is 54,703 people who have been in most circumstances forced to leave everything behind: their homes, belongings, their farms, land and animals; in short, their livelihoods.

The probability of Rodrigo returning home is slim and, while he seems eager to go back, he is in the minority as numbers show that 80 per cent of IDPs do not wish to return. The ICRC acts as as neutral intermediary. Its role is one of facilitation, getting involved only when humanitarian issues resulting from the conflict come to the fore. Calls are made to and received from chief contacts in the Government and any one of the armed groups.

Perhaps the best example of this was the recovery in September of the bodies of 11 politicians from Cali. The 11 had been held in captivity for five years by the leftist Farc rebels (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and were reportedly killed in a skirmish between the rebel group and government troops, although accounts of the incident are contradictory. An arrangement was reached between the Colombian government and the Farc rebels using the ICRC as a channel of communication between the two parties. The ICRC subsequently received the coordinates of the locations of the bodies and was able to recover them.

While the example of the recovery of the bodies seems straightforward, in practice it is anything but. Reaching compromises between the parties involved is an arduous process, as is receiving a guarantee of security. The ICRC needs to tread carefully when discussing territories under control by rebel groups since the Government, of course, does not accept nor recognise these claims.

But where does this leave individuals such as Rodrigo? What happens to the civilian survivors fleeing battles between the military, the rebel movements and new insurgent groups. What happens to them after they line up outside one of the 11 ICRC offices located around Colombia?

Some people who have fled their homes remain in constant danger, even after seeking refuge through the ICRC. "There was a recent case of a woman with three children who was displaced along with her family to Bogota and while she was being processed in the capital, she saw some of those who had been threatening her elsewhere, outside her safe-house," says Hintermann. "This is a particularly sad case: her husband had been killed, her eldest daughter raped and various family members murdered. We had to use our contacts in embassies and I believe they are now safely in asylum in a European country."

The ICRC office in Medellin which deals with all displaced people from the five regions of Choco, Antioquia, Risaralda, Quindio and Caldas, a total area of 124,500 sq kms (an area marginally smaller than England) has so far this year attended to 5,878 people making claims. These people may have been displaced for any number of reasons: from activities by armed groups, the army, or from floods and other natural disasters.

The ICRC only assists those affected by conflict: this is its mandate. Other organisations, including the Government, assist in cases of flooding or the sensitive issue of coca fumigation. The ICRC focuses on those displaced due to threats, killing of family members, pressure to collaborate, and forced recruitment, as well as the fighting itself. The ICRC maintains a confidential dialogue with all the parties involved in the conflict, including the government forces, the armed groups and some of the newer paramilitary outfits, both in order to ensure access to the conflict zones, and to address and transmit its concerns about human rights violations, in line with international law.

There are pros and cons for the ICRC resulting from the demobilization of parts of the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia the right-wing umbrella organisation under which many of the local armed groups operate) in recent years. For one, there are fewer combatants and this in itself,is a positive, but a drawback is that splinter groups form. These splinter groups are tough to approach, since there is often not the central chain of command of a larger, established group. Conversely, some are not averse to talking to the ICRC because they have usually met under the mandate of another group and so are familiar with the ICRC's practices.

Regardless of the respect that all parties in this internal war may have for the ICRC, there are many problems; rife are summary executions and other violations of International Humanitarian Law, which the ICRC endeavours to document. The hottest areas of conflict are in the most remote parts of the country, making the ICRC's task an arduous one.

The government may have you believe that they are winning the war, but in terms of IDPs there is a long way to go, as so much goes unseen and therefore unacknowledged. The situation for Rodrigo and his family and thousands of others like them in Colombia does not appear to be improving.