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Colombia's Displaced People

Hidden in plain sight

By DAVID ADAMS Times Latin America Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 25, 1999


BOGOTA, Colombia -- For nine years, architects Rafael and Diana Eslaba saved to build a two-bedroom house.

Three months ago, their middle-class dream was shattered. An armed man came to the door of their new home on the outskirts of the Colombian capital. He bore a note from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the left-wing guerrilla group known by the Spanish acronym FARC, which has waged war against the state for 30 years.

The message to Rafael was brutally simple: Sell everything you have and give us the money. Otherwise, you're a dead man.

Eslaba, 37, wasted no time. "I knew I couldn't sell the house quickly, so I left right away."

He packed his bags, said goodbye to his wife and took the first plane to Miami.

For almost half a century, political violence in rural areas has forced hundreds of thousands of Colombians -- mostly poor peasants -- to flee their homes and seek refuge across the country.

Now, for the first time, escalating bloodshed coupled with a deepening financial crisis is fueling an exodus of wealthy and middle-class Colombians who seek safety abroad.

Since April, an estimated 1,200 Colombian families have arrived in Miami. Many more are on the way. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota say they are inundated with visa applications.

Fleeing Colombians fear their country is plunging into all-out civil war. As media attention in the United States remains focused on the crisis in the former Yugoslavia, refugee workers say a slow-burning Kosovo is being ignored in its own back yard.

"In Colombia, it's a chronic situation. It's been going on so long, it's almost seen as normal," said Mertxe Erazo, a Roman Catholic volunteer working with refugees in northern Colombia. "It's only news when there's a big massacre."

FARC and the Army of National Liberation (ELN), two rebel armies financed by proceeds from drug trafficking and kidnapping, now operate across large rural areas of the country. Frustrated by the Colombian army's inability to defeat the guerrillas, wealthy landowners finance brutal, right-wing "self-defense" militias whose tactics have sown added terror in the countryside.

Human rights activists say roughly 10 Colombians are killed every day in political violence -- more than 35,000 in the past decade. Another eight are kidnapped daily, making Colombia one of the world's most dangerous places to live. Since the mid-1980s, an estimated

Colombia from 1A

In Colombia, they are are known a

the desplazados, or displaced.

The Colombian government does not recognize them as refugees, so there are no camps. Municipal officials dismiss them as economic migrants seeking government welfare. They are mostly to be found living in filthy squatter communities on the fringes of the main cities and towns.

Often pursued by their persecutors, they seek anonymity and work to feed their uprooted families.

"They come here looking for refuge, to hide from the killers," said Jorge Patino, a metalworker in Patio Bonito, a sprawling shanty-town of 200,000 people on the southwestern outskirts of Bogota. "It just keeps growing."

Sewage runs in an open canal. Prostitution and drug trafficking are rife, and the police stay away. Public services are so limited that residents run their own schools in makeshift wooden shacks with classrooms divided by plastic sheeting.

"The city doesn't provide anything," said Olga Cifuentes, an aid worker with the Corporation of Democratic Entities for Development. "They don't recognize the displaced people. Reality doesn't exist for them.

"All they (city officials) see is poverty. They categorize the displaced as beggars."

Hundreds in Patio Bonito's displaced population were evicted from their squatter shacks last year when the city decreed that they had settled on municipal land. A spokesman for the mayor of Bogota declined to discuss the plight of the city's displaced, saying it was the central government's responsibility.

"What do they think I'm going to do?" said Lucero Avila, 33, a mother of five living in a condemned shack. "Go and live under a bridge?"

Avila came to Patio Bonito eight years ago after her family was forced to flee a rebel stronghold in the coca-growing region of southern Colombia.

Every day brings more bad news. Her brother, an army officer, was killed in combat with the guerrillas in May.

The situation is worse still in the countryside, where guerrillas vie for control of the territory with paramilitary groups that work for wealthy landowners. Government troops are slow to intervene and rarely seem able to prevent the slaughter. Both sides strike almost at random, attacking hamlets suspected of harboring their enemies.

In the northern province of Cordoba, home to one of the largest and most ruthless paramilitary groups, local peasants have found themselves sandwiched between the warring factions.

During a bloody campaign by the paramilitary to seize control of the region from the FARC guerrillas in the mid-1980s, thousands were displaced and settled in a squatter camp on the outskirts of the city of Monteria.

A decade of harsh repression followed, as the paramilitary extended its control -- pushing peasant farmers off some of the best land and killing at will.

When the guerrillas attempted to reinfiltrate the area in 1996, a series of massacres caused a new exodus that is ongoing. In the past year, thousands of peasants in remote mountain communities have fled.

More than 200 peasants have camped for seven months at a converted farmhouse in the town of Tierra Alta, about 50 miles south of Monteria.

Dozens sleep on the floor of a cleaned-out pig sty. They are being cared for by the local church and aid workers.

"These people are totally abandoned," said Luz Elena Sanchez, an aid worker for Benposta, a Spanish-financed agency working with displaced children. "The government tells them it's safe now to go back to their communities. But they are too terrified."

More than 100 children are fed at an improvised dining area under a thatched roof, seated in rows of school desks and chairs, the only furniture that could be salvaged after guerrillas burned the hamlet of El Diamante in late December. Nine people died in the attack.

"We can't ever go back there," said Marcial Avila, a community leader from El Diamante. "The guerrillas accuse us of collaborating with the paramilitaries. We are dead if we return."

Survivors told a familiar tale. Paramilitary units passed by El Diamante from time to time, occasionally purchasing supplies. While residents denied any formal collaboration with them, the mere presence of the paramilitary was enough to make El Diamante a guerrilla target.

On June 22, guerrillas attacked the hamlet of Tierra Dentro.

"I was in the hills when the shooting began," said Marcelio Martinez, 64.

When the shooting ended, he ran home to find his wife, Ana Maria, lying in the street with a bullet in her back. Martinez carried her for three days, accompanied by their two daughters, ages 5 and 3, desperately seeking medical attention. She died before he could find help.

The same occurred last week in Saisa, another larger village where guerrillas recently stopped to purchase 70 mules. The paramilitary arrived a few days later to execute their own brand of justice. Eight villagers accused of selling to the rebels were killed, and more than a dozen stores were razed. The villagers fled.

Aid workers for Benposta say they currently feed 540 displaced children in Tierra Alta. Over the entrance to one feeding place, where children eat sitting on a concrete floor, the words "Territory of Peace" are pasted on the wall.

What is lacking in furniture is made up for by the loving care of volunteers in the kitchen. For cook Neris Tobar, 46, the work is therapy. One night four years ago, paramilitaries burst into her house and shot her husband in front of the family.

"They didn't say anything. They just walked in, killed him and walked out," she said.

One of her sons also disappeared. His mutilated body was later discovered in a shallow grave.

"There's no logic to any of it," said Linei Torres, a mother of four whose family has been displaced three times. "One day your neighbor is murdered by one of the armed groups. That makes you a target for the other side, just because you live next door and weren't touched," she said. "You don't wait for them to come, because you know the next time it's your turn to die."

News of such atrocities in the countryside rarely makes headlines in Bogota. Many of the displaced opt for silence as their best guarantee of safety.

That now may be shifting. In recognition of the plight of the displaced, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees opened an office in Bogota this year and plans an educational campaign to raise awareness. Authorities have passed a law requiring the state to provide 90 days of food, housing and health services to the displaced, but aid officials say bureaucracy and local corruption divert much of the money.

Other more high-profile political matters, such as efforts to engage the guerrillas in peace talks, as well as U.S.-backed counter-drug operations, serve to distract government attention from the issue.

An earthquake in January that killed 1,200 people in an important coffee-growing region also has overwhelmed emergency agencies and government relief funds.

Now, urban panic over the economic crisis is perhaps for the first time alerting many Colombians to the nation's dilemma, fueling the exodus to Miami.

A series of bank failures, dwindling foreign investment and 20 percent unemployment has rocked national confidence.

Experts point out that massive proceeds from drug trafficking -- estimated to account for up to 30 percent of total exports -- have helped sustain artificial levels of financial well-being. Long battles with the most organized drug cartels in the cities of Medellin and Cali have financially disrupted the drug business, sucking money out of the economy.

"That's the paradox of the crisis today," said Danilo Lineros, a local stock broker. "For decades we learned to live with the drugs and the violence and it didn't bother us. Now, for the very first time, we have an economic crisis and we are all scared to death."

Government ministers acknowledge the picture is bleak.

"Colombia is going through its worst economic moment in 50 years," said Sergio Clavijo, vice minister of the treasury. "Everything has its limit and we reached that limit. The system is exhausted."

But Clavijo is optimistic that the recession can be quickly tamed. "The scale of the crisis is still manageable," he said. "We have touched bottom and we are already seeing signs of economic recovery."

But that is little comfort to thousands of unemployed professionals who now see their future abroad.

Thousands of new Colombian arrivals took to the streets of Miami and other U.S. cities last week to plead for temporary asylum. Some called for more drastic action, including a U.S. military intervention to defeat the guerrillas.

"Clinton wake up and smell the coffee," read one banner. "Colombia needs your help to clean up the narco-guerrillas, the terrorists and the kidnappers and killers of innocent people."

Following the example of Miami's large and well-organized Cuban, Haitian and Central American exiles, leaders of the Colombian community are gearing up to lobby Washington.

"People are coming," said Fabio Andrade, president of the new Colombian-American Political Action Committee. "This is just the start. That is why the (Clinton) administration must act immediately."

Among those demonstrating in Miami on Tuesday was Eslaba, the architect forced to abandon his Bogota home in April. After entering the country on a tourist visa, he now works illegally selling flowers on the street. He worries about his wife, whom he left with relatives in Bogota.

"We just ask for the U.S. to give us somewhere to live and work in peace," he said. "When we built our house, we thought we were safe in Bogota."

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