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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. Torres’s 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 Torres’s 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 army’s 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 can’t even have peace. It gets to the point that when people came to take a census, at first we didn’t 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 Colombia’s 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 government’s 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 Colombia’s 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. Colombia’s 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

Conditions for the displaced in Turbo were even worse. There, the displaced were housed in a large unventilated sports coliseum where they live “like pigs on the floor,” according to one of the residents. He also reported that during one twenty-day period, no food at all arrived at the camp, forcing the families to subsist on bananas.199

With no activities or programs available in the camps, many displaced were seriously depressed. A displaced father of two living in Turbo told Human Rights Watch in July: “When I see the bad life I am living, I feel like I want to take poison and kill myself and my family. I sometimes think I should have died as a little child so that I wouldn’t have to be living this.”200

Children suffer the most serious effects of the minimal and irregular medical care in the camps. Chronic diarrhea, dehydration, and hepatitis are common. In April 1997, one child died of poorly treated diarrhea. The Colombian Red Cross reported to the Public Advocate’s Office that on several occasions older people were denied medical care when the army refused to allow them to be taken from the camp to the hospital.201

Corruption and mismanagement have also prevented aid from reaching the displaced. In July 1997, displaced families at Pavarandó and Turbo were surprised to receive winter jackets, in-line roller skates, silk stockings, artificial Christmas trees, and rotten food as aid, in a place where the temperature rarely descends below eighty degrees Fahrenheit and there is no pavement.202

Given the insufficiency of government aid, most of Colombia’s one million displaced people must survive through their own ingenuity and perseverance and the limited assistance of church and humanitarian groups. Many manage only a precarious existence lacking in food, water, and basic medical care. For example, during a site visit to a farm where displaced peasants from the department of Cesar were relocated by the government, displaced farmers told Human Rights Watch that insufficient water laden with agrochemicals had caused their crops to fail. The seventy-nine residents, including forty-three children, expected to receive food donations only for the next two months, when a program funded by an international group was scheduled to end.203 In a previous visit to the farm, the Public Advocate’s Office had reported chronic malnutrition among children and found that no drinking water had been delivered to the farm for over a month.204

Forced return

In some cases, the government has impelled the displaced to return to their communities despite its inability to guarantee their security, a violation of Article 17 of Protocol II, which forbids the forced movement of civilians except for reasons of their security or military imperative.

For example, according to virtually all informed observers and the displaced themselves consulted by the U.S. Committee for Refugees, from the moment that the Riosucio displaced arrived in Pavarandó and Turbo, the government began pressuring them to return home.

While displaced people said that they wanted to return, they insisted that the government guarantee their security. In November 1997, the government announced that the displaced in Pavarandó had agreed to return home and would sign an agreement to that effect. But the displaced people refused to sign, saying that while the agreement promised them financial assistance to rebuild their communities, it did not guarantee their security.205

Indeed, as the year ended, there were reports of new ACCU massacres in and around Riosucio, Chocó, where many of the displaced in camps were from. Although government and military authorities at first denied the reports and claimed that the groups that had received them had engaged in “disinformation,” a commission from the Attorney General’s Office later confirmed that at least twelve people had been killed and another seventeen were unaccounted for in late December, raising serious questions about the long-term safety of any of the displaced who return.206

In early 1998, an estimated 500 displaced people from Pavarandó began to leave for resettlement areas, where they had been promised government support. However, even as they began to arrive, the government failed to provide them with promised assistance, including construction materials for homes and food.207

According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, return “has been promoted even though minimum conditions of securitycould not be guaranteed and the causes which gave rise to the displacement had not been eliminated.”208


In November 1996, 400 farmers from the Unguia, Chocó region fled to Panama. The UNHCR asked the Panamanian government for access to the refugees and the government agreed, but on the day UNHCR representatives arrived, the Panamanian authorities working with the Colombian air force forcibly returned eighty-eight of the refugees to Colombia.209

Human Rights Watch considers this a violation of Panama’s obligations under Article 33 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which prohibits the return of a refugee “in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The Convention, which Panama acceded to on August 2, 1978, protects refugees in its territory and prohibits governments from returning them to situations where their lives would be in danger.210

The refugees were housed in the Apartadó Children's Home, where conditions were cramped and unsanitary.211

In early March 1997, over 300 Colombian refugees from the Riosucio area arrived in Panama after several weeks’ walk. The Panamanian government again promised UNHCR access to the refugees, but in conjunction with the Colombian authorities, returned 325 people, among them 177 children, beginning on April 18, once again without permitting UNHCR to meet them.212 The UNHCR strongly condemned the Panamanian government for forcibly repatriating the Colombians without allowing the UNHCR to speak directly with them.213

Many of the returnees claimed that the Panamanian police rounded them up and told them they had seventy-two hours to board the helicopters being provided "or else." Others said that they were tricked into returning by Colombian government promises to relocate them and give them money and land. One returnee told Human Rights Watch in August 1997 that no one wanted to return, that they felt it better to die in Panama than return to Colombia, but that the families were taken “by force.”214

These returnees were sent to a run-down camp-like shelter in the town of Bahia Cupica, Chocó where they faced continued threats and violence from paramilitaries. In August, the ICRC evacuated twelve people, whose names were being circulated on a paramilitary death list.215 An investigation by the Internal Affairs Office of Special Investigations the following September found abundant evidence that the ACCU maintained complete control of the area. The displaced faced “constant danger ... not a single judicial, police, military, or government representative has attempted to stop these murders, torture, or forced disappearances that the inhabitants of these places have been subjected to.”216

164. CINEP and Justice and Peace, Noche y Niebla, January-March 1997, p. 50; and U.S. Committee for Refugees, Colombia’s Silent Crisis: One million displaced by violence (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1998), p. 34.

165 Translation by Human Rights Watch. Carlos Sourdis, “Solo los perros se quedaron en El Salado,” El Tiempo, April 6, 1997.

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.

167 Diego Pérez, “Informe sobre el Desplazamiento Forzado en Colombia, Enero-Octubre 1997,” GAD, November 1997, p. 8.

168 CODHES, “Colombia: Desplazados, Éxodo, Miedo y Pobreza,” March 1998.

169 U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1997), p. 6.

170 For an in-depth analysis of forced displacement in Colombia, see U.S. Committee for Refugees, Colombia’s Silent Crisis: One million displaced by violence (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1998).

171 The Colombian constitution also forbids the punishment of expulsion (destierro) in Article 34.

172 Human Rights Watch interview with Horacio Arango, Programa por la Paz, Santafé de Bogotá, June 25, 1996.

173 Human Rights Watch interviews with Currulao residents, Apartadó, Antioquia, July 5, 1996; and Human Rights Watch interview with Mayor Gloria Cuartas, Apartadó, Antioquia, July 5, 1996.

174 Andrés Franco, “Los Desplazamientos internos en Colombia: una conceptualización política para una solución de largo plazo,” prepared for the UNHCR, March 1997.

175 “Los que generan el drama,” El Tiempo, December 31, 1997.

176 CODHES, “Colombia: Desplazados, Éxodo, Miedo y Pobreza,” March 1998.

177 Human Rights Watch interview with María Girlesa Villegas, regional Public Advocate’s Office, Medellín, Antioquia, December 9, 1997.

178 CINEP and Justice and Peace, Balance 1997, pp. 8-9.

179 Letter from Carlos Rodríguez, CCJ, to John Donaldson, president, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Organization of American States, February 24, 1998.

180 Human Rights Watch interview with CCJ, Santafé de Bogotá, December 3, 1997.

181 “Los desplazados: la cultura del silencio,” El Tiempo, September 30, 1997.

182 Human Rights Watch interview with Rioblanco displaced, Santafé de Bogotá, December 5, 1997; and Urgent Action, Fundación Mencoldes, October 16, 1997.

183 Human Rights Watch interview at the Peasant Shelter, Barrancabermeja, Santander, June 28, 1996.

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.

185 Letter to Human Rights Watch from Father Javier Giraldo, Justice and Peace, December 3, 1997.

186 Translation by Human Rights Watch. Carlos Alberto Giraldo, “Los desterrados de Dabeiba,” El Colombiano, April 8, 1998.

187 Law 387, July 20, 1997.

188 Ibid.

189 Diego Pérez, “Informe sobre el Desplazamiento Forzado en Colombia, Enero-Octubre 1997,” GAD, November 1997, p. 22.

190 U.S. Committee for Refugees, Colombia’s Silent Crisis: One million displaced by violence, pp. 18-19.

191 Letter from Carlos Rodríguez, CCJ, to John Donaldson, president, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Organization of American States, February 24, 1998.

192 Human Rights Watch interview with Anthony Sánchez, Mennonite Relief Agency (MENCOLDES), Santafé de Bogotá, December 5, 1997.

193 U.S. Committee for Refugees, Colombia’s Silent Crisis: One million displaced by violence, pp. 25-26.

194 “Falta mas atención a desplazados,” El Espectador, December 26, 1997.

195 Commission on Human Rights, “Report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,” March 1, 1998.

196 Human Rights Watch interview with displaced man living in Pavarandó Grande, Santafé de Bogotá, July 22, 1997.

197 Letter to Human Rights Watch from humanitarian aid worker, June 1997.

198 Human Rights Watch interview with displaced man living in Pavarandó Grande, Santafé de Bogotá, July 22, 1997.

199 Human Rights Watch interview with displaced man living in Turbo, Santafé de Bogotá, August 1, 1997.

200 Ibid.

201 Report of the Public Advocate’s Office, Delegada para los Derechos de la Niñez, La Mujer y los Ancianos, April 12, 1997.

202 “Insólita 'ayuda' a desplazados en Urabá,” El Tiempo, March 28, 1998.

203 Human Rights Watch visit to Hacienda Los Cámbulos, Tolima, August 4, 1997.

204 Report of the Public Advocate’s Office, Delegada Para los Derechos de la Niñez, La Mujer y Los Ancianos, Regional Ibagué, April 9, 1997.

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 General’s 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.

207 “En Domingodó, nueva comunidad de paz,” El Tiempo, March 26, 1998.

208 Commission on Human Rights, “Report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,” March 1, 1998.

209 U.S. Committee for Refugees, Colombia’s Silent Crisis: One million displaced by violence, p. 16.

210 Colombia signed the Refugee Convention on July 28, 1951, and ratified it on October 10, 1961.

211 Amnesty International Urgent Action 278/96, November 28, 1996.

212 “Terminó repatriación de colombianos en Panamá,” El Tiempo, April 21, 1997; and U.S. Committee for Refugees, Colombia’s Silent Crisis: One million displaced by violence, p. 16.

213 UNHCR Briefing Notes, April 11, 1997.

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.

215 Human Rights Watch electronic mail from Juan Manuel Bustillo, Secretario Operativo del GAD, September 5, 1997.

216 Translation by Human Rights Watch. Internal Affairs, Office of Special Investigations, September 22, 1997.

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