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.

Suggested Topics
Voices
Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond delivers his speech at the Scottish National Party (SNP) Spring Conference in Aberdeen, Scotland April 12, 2014.
voices
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as the troubled, melancholy Don Draper
tvAnd six other questions we hope Mad Men series seven will answer
Life & Style
The new low cost smartphone of Motorola, 'Motorola Moto G', is displayed in Sao Paulo, Brazil on November 13, 2013. The smartphone, with dimensions 65.9mm W x 129.9mm H x 6.0 - 11.6mm D is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 with quad-core 1,2 GHz CPU, a 4.5-inch display and Android Operating System 4.3 and a suggested price of $ 179 USD.
techData assessing smartphones has revealed tens of millions of phones are at risk of being harvested
News
David Beckham is planning to build a stadium in Miami’s port for a new football team he will own
news... in his fight for a football stadium in Miami's port area
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
weird newsMan live-photographs cracking of mysterious locked box on Reddit
Sport
Oliver Giroud kisses the Arsenal badge after giving the Gunners the lead
sportArsenal 3 West Ham 1: Two goals from the German striker and one piece of brilliance from Giroud puts the Gunners back above Everton
News
Plans to decriminalise non-payment of television licence fees would cost the BBC £500m according to estimates drawn up within the Corporation
people
News
weird news
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
filmAs 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star James Dean perfected his moody act
News
Obesity surgery in rats has been found to change the way the body processes alcohol
news
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
artThe Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
Life & Style
US Airways has been at the centre of a Twitter storm after it responded to customer complaints with a graphic sexual image
techUS Airways takes an interesting approach to customer service
Arts & Entertainment
Philip Arditti as Yossarian and Christopher Price as Milo Minderbinder in Northern Stage's 'Catch-22'
theatre
Arts & Entertainment
The Purple Wedding: Joffrey and Margaery Tyrell tie the knot
TV The second episode of the hit series featured a surprise for viewers
Life & Style
Back to nature: women with body issues have found naked yoga sessions therapeutic
lifeDoing poses in the altogether is already big in the US, and now it’s landed here – in mixed classes
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Corporate Sales Manager, Slough

    £30K- £35K pa + Commision £10K + Car and Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly ...

    Sales Manager, High Wycombe

    £30K- £35K pa + Commision £10K + Car and Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly ...

    Travel Consultant - Aberdeen

    £18000 - £27000 per annum: Flight Centre Limited: Join one of the biggest trav...

    Travel Consultant

    £15000 - £27000 per annum + Benefits & Uncapped Commission: Flight Centre Limi...

    Day In a Page

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?