I live without memory.
Colombian internally displaced woman, December 11, 1997
When ACCU members found Doris María Torres, a teacher, and the five farmers named on their list for the town of El Salado, Bolívar, they forced them to the town square. Torress mother later told an investigator that the six were made to lie face down and were executed with shots to the head. Among those forced to watch were Torress two children.164
Over the following week in March 1997, 320 families abandoned El Salado, leaving behind houses, furniture, fields, and schools. When journalists visited later, they found only empty streets, lined with mute houses... and traveled only by the wind and an occasional starving dog that seemed to be searching for its masters.165
Unlike refugees, who escape political persecution by crossing an international border, displaced people flee their homes but stay within their countries. Forced displacement is expressly prohibited by Article 17 of Protocol II. Unless civilians must move for their own security or a clear military imperative, any displacement shall not be ordered for reasons related to the conflict. Should such displacements have to be carried out, all possible measures shall be taken in order that the civilian population may be received under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, medical, safety, and nutrition.166
However, since 1980 displacements provoked by all of the parties to the conflict and undertaken without any regard for the civilian population have become the rule and now take place throughout Colombia. According to the Displaced Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo a Desplazados, GAD), an alliance of human rights, church, and humanitarian aid groups, over one million Colombians have been displaced by violence.167
The number displaced annually has increased markedly since 1995, according to a 1997 study by the Consultancy for Human Rights and the Displaced (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, CODHES), a research and humanitarian aid group. CODHES found that since 1995, forced displacement has almost tripled, reaching its highest ever number in 1997 with at least 257,000 Colombians newly forced to flee.168 Colombia has the fourth largest displaced population in the world according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, after the Sudan, Angola, and Afghanistan.169
Chief among the causes of forced displacement are human rights and laws of war violations. Displacement is also linked to powerful business interests, who ally with paramilitaries to force poor farmers from their land, then occupy it or buy it for paltry sums.170
Forced displacement often results from indiscriminate attacks, the terror caused by massacres, selective killings, torture, and threats. In some cases, Human Rights Watch found that a party to the conflict forced civilians to flee their homes as part of a planned military maneuver. This forced displacement clearly violatedArticle 12 of Protocol II. Civilians were not only harmed by the military operations, but were forced to be a central element of those operations.171 For example, when Human Rights Watch visited Tierralta, Córdoba in 1996, humanitarian aid officials had registered the arrival of 567 families, many of whom told us they had been ordered to abandon their homes by the FARC. At the time, the FARC was pressured by the ACCU and apparently believed that a mass displacement of civilians would delay the paramilitary advance and win them better increased access to provisions.172
Similarly, pressured by paramilitaries advancing south, the FARC forced the displacement of an estimated 3,000 people from twenty-seven villages around Currulao to Apartadó, Antioquia, in June 1996, in part to gain access to needed supplies. Families arrived with little more than they could carry on their backs. Children suffered from food and water shortages and lack of proper shelter and medical care.173 While the FARC may argue that the displacement was a military imperative, recognized by Article 17 of Protocol II, it requires that combatants make provisions for the safety or well being of the civilians involved, including providing for their shelter, hygiene, medical, safety, or nutrition, clearly ignored in this case.
Colombians from all walks of life have been displaced. While professionals, elected officials, and businesspeople forced to flee may have resources to set up a new household and continue in their jobs, most displaced are poor farmers who lose nearly everything when they leave their homes and fields. According to a study done for the UNHCR, three-quarters of displaced are women, often single mothers, and children. Most displaced lose their sole place of residence when they flee.174
Among all combatant forces, only the AUC publicly accepts responsibility for forcibly displacing civilians. In an interview with El Tiempo, Carlos Castaño acknowledged that his forces had a lot of responsibility. Armed conflict produces [forced displacement] as it develops.175
Although forced displacement has been registered for over a decade, most internally displaced moved as individuals or families prior to 1996. Since, an increasing number of the displaced move as whole villages or towns. According to CODHES, over one-quarter of the people displaced in 1997 fled in large groups, as combatants clashed near their homes, farms, and businesses.176
As María Girlesa Villegas, public advocate for the department of Antioquia, told Human Rights Watch, The movement of masses of people is only the last step in a long process. It starts with one or two families, then a group of people. Again and again, these communities see atrocities. And when they can stand it no longer, that is when they leave.177
Although political violence exists throughout Colombia, there were key regions where massacres, fighting, targeted killings, and threats prompted forced displacement: the northern departments of Antioquia, Bolívar, Cesar, and Norte de Santander; the Middle Magdalena region; and the region known as Urabá, bordering Panama and including northern Chocó department.178 Forced displacement also spread to new areas formerly at the margins of conflict, including the departments of Chocó and Putumayo.179
The department of Chocó was at the margins of conflict until 1996, when an ACCU advance reached the northern tip of the department.180 In the course of three months, paramilitary massacres, selective killings, and threats paired with direct combat and the Colombian armys Operation Genesis caused between15,000 and 17,000 people to flee. In a public forum, Father Manuel Napoleón García, from the Quibdó diocese, described how dramatically the department had changed by comparing statistics on violent deaths. In 1995, for instance, Father García said the diocese registered fifteen killings. In comparison, there were one hundred registered killings in only the first six months of 1997, most for political reasons.181
Another relatively new phenomenon is the targeting of leaders of displaced communities, accused by combatants of either belonging to an enemy side or arranging displacements as a part of military maneuver. In Rioblanco, Tolima, for instance, described in the CONVIVIR section, families who fled in September 1996 and did not return continued to receive threats from the same group related to their efforts to resettle. On September 2, 1997, Heriberto Hernández, president of the Rioblanco Displaced Committee, was taken by armed men believed to be CONVIVIR members and executed on the outskirts of Rioblanco. Other committee members have also been threatened. As a result, ten families, including twenty-seven adults and twenty-five children, traveled to Santafé de Bogotá to ask for government protection in September 1997.182
Not just leaders are at risk. A shelter for Middle Magdalena displaced families was the target of repeated attacks in 1996 and 1997, eventually forcing it to close.183 Associations of the displaced are under constant threat, particularly from paramilitary groups, who have gone to camps and other areas where there are displaced to threaten them.184
On December 1, 1997, paramilitaries identifying themselves as ACCU members arrived at a Dabeiba, Antioquia shelter and demanded to speak to several people to clear up some matters. Herminio Palomeque agreed to accompanythem and got into their car. His body, with visible signs of torture, was found the next day. He had been executed with one shot to the head.185
It is very difficult to live in the city, one displaced person told a journalist in Medellín. On the one hand, there is the misery of poverty, and on the other hand the psychosis [of fear]. People from the ACCU threaten that they will come here and even things up once and for all. So, even as you suffer from hunger, you cant even have peace. It gets to the point that when people came to take a census, at first we didnt want to take part, out of fear.186
Some Colombians do cross international borders and become refugees. In 1996 and 1997, the UNHCR reported that there were hundreds of Colombian refugees in Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela, which share borders with Colombia. Costa Rica, Sweden, Spain, and the United States have also sheltered Colombian refugees.
The Samper administration responded to forced displacement by adopting a plan for the displaced in 1995, creating the post of presidential counselor for the displaced (Consejería Presidencial para Desplazados) in April 1997, adopting a revised national plan on displacement the following May, and promulgating Law 387 in July, which deals specifically with assistance, protection, and prevention issues.
Law 387 is Colombias first attempt to reflect in domestic legislation the protections for displaced people contained in Protocol II, a positive step. However, Law 387 focuses on general requirements for humanitarian aid once the displaced are already fleeing and contains no specific measures designed to prevent or penalize the act of forcing the civilian population to flee.187 Law 387 outlines the governments policy on emergency aid, but fails to address issues of justice or the causes of the displacement.188
Advocates for the displaced and human rights groups point out that government measures have so far fallen prey to lack of funding, insufficient coordination between government agencies, and poor information. In all, thegovernment has failed to live up to its responsibility to protect the forcibly displaced, as laid out in Protocol II. According to the Displaced Support Group, during 1996 and the first half of 1997, government relief benefited a mere 38,182 displaced persons nationwide.189
In the words of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, which reported on Colombias internally displaced in a March 1998 report, conditions facing the internally displaced range from Modest to insufferable...of the estimated one million Colombians who have been displaced from their homes, only a few tens of thousands (including those living in the few camps for displaced persons) are currently receiving financial assistance or food aid from the government. NGOs and church groups assist others, but are only able to reach a small minority of the total displaced population.190
Government authorities have been slow to implement Law 387 despite the critical nature of mass displacement occurring even as this report went to press. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, the government agencies responsible for attending the displaced lacked any coordination and they were unable to get any overall sense of what government funds were allocated for assisting the displaced.191
Additionally, Law 387 provides for the delivery of aid, but also imposes a time limit of three months for families to receive aid, which in exceptional circumstances may be extended for another three months. As humanitarian groups have repeatedly pointed out, displaced people are in need of aid for a much longer period, even if they are among the few who manage to relocate to new land. In an interview with Human Rights Watch, one humanitarian aid worker estimated that the minimum time necessary to reestablish a displaced farm family is two years, since that takes into account the work of clearing, planting, and harvesting that makes a family self-sufficient.192
Increasingly, the international community has been assisting the forcibly displaced in Colombia. The European Union is the largest international contributor to the relief of the displaced. In addition, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and ICRC both have programs in Colombia that assist the displaced. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is expected to join them soon.193
Conditions for Displaced
Most displaced Colombians continue to live in misery and fear. Colombias cities have absorbed displaced families into their growing slums, and the displaced often live on the margins of these already marginal settlements. According to the Santafé de Bogotá human rights personero, Government authorities in the capital have not assumed their responsibility to care for the displaced people who come to the city.194
Others take shelter in temporary camps. At the end of 1997, at least four camps for the displaced were functioning: more than 4,200 people were housed at Pavarandó, more than 3,000 at the Turbo stadium, and an estimated 3,000 divided between parks in Ituango and Puerto Valdivia, all in Antioquia. As the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, which visited many displaced communities in 1997, pointed out in its 1998 report, The situation of the displaced population, both in collective settlements and on the outskirts of cities, is critical in the extreme and takes the form of lack of access to basic health, food, housing, and education services, and serious overcrowding.195
The camp at Pavarandó, for instance, had minimal medical care and almost no other services or activities in 1997. The displaced complained that food distribution was erratic. Even when the displaced received rations, they were not sufficient. Displaced families lived in tents made of black plastic tarps, open to air, weather and the baking sun. Families were forced to eat, cook, and sleep in the four square meters where approximately ten people live. It is very hot in the tents, onedisplaced man told Human Rights Watch. Many children have hepatitis or malaria. Families are disintegrating.196
On the day one humanitarian aid worker visited, he told Human Rights Watch, the displaced had gone four days without food.197
At Pavarandó, safety was among the main concerns of the displaced. The paramilitaries continue to be in the town of Pavarandó and they are constantly telling us that they will enter the camp and kill people, one displaced man told Human Rights Watch.
Most forcibly displaced Colombians live in deplorable conditions, like these families from the department of Cesar. © Jennifer Bailey/Human Rights Watch, July 1997.
After the camp was set up, the paramilitaries said they would continue to kill anyone they found in the area.198
164. CINEP and Justice and Peace, Noche y Niebla, January-March 1997, p. 50; and U.S. Committee for Refugees, Colombias Silent Crisis: One million displaced by violence (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1998), p. 34.
166 In November 1995, the Colombian government adopted a decree that allows civilian and military authorities to evacuate families or whole populations from areas where there are military operations. Decree 2027 was made during a state of internal commotion declared after the assassination of conservative politician Álvaro Gómez. However, Decree 2027 was framed broadly and allowed authorities to order displacements in almost any situation and without making specific arrangements for the health and safety of displacedfamilies. After Human Rights Watch expressed its concern over this measure as a possible violation of the laws of war, then-Interior Minister Horacio Serpa said that there were no plans to implement the decree, and to our knowledge it has never been invoked. Human Rights Watch interview with Interior Minister Horacio Serpa, Santafé de Bogotá, November 7, 1995.
170 For an in-depth analysis of forced displacement in Colombia, see U.S. Committee for Refugees, Colombias Silent Crisis: One million displaced by violence (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1998).
184 Human Rights Watch interview with displaced association, Sabana de Torres, Santander, June 29, 1996; and Letter from Justice and Peace to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, April 17, 1998.
205 Letter to Human Rights Watch from Patricia Luna, Interior Ministry, November 20, 1997; Yaned Ramírez,El drama de la raza, El Tiempo, October 12, 1997; and A fin de mes empezaría el regreso, El Tiempo, October 12, 1997.
206 Attorney Generals Office, Press Release, Informe de la Comisión que viajó a Urabá, Boletín de Prensa No. 012, Santafé de Bogotá, January 22, 1998; Letter to Human Rights Watch from Father Gabriel Izquierdo, CINEP, February 9, 1998; and Press Release No. 001, Seventeenth Brigade, January 2, 1998.
214 After the return, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Panamanian President Ernesto Pérez Balladares expressing our concern that Panama had failed to respect its obligations under the Convention on the Status of Refugees, which Panama has ratified, to protect refugees in its territory, refrain from returning them to situations where their lives would be in danger, and failing to allow the oversight and participation of the UNHCR. We never received a response. Human Rights Watch letter to President Ernesto Pérez Balladares, April 29, 1997.