• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Amid the violence in Colombia, an indigenous people struggle for their identity

News Stories, 14 August 2013

UNHCR is helping the Awa, an indigenous people straddling the Ecuador-Colombia border, to make contingency plans in case violence in Colombia forces further population displacement across the river into Ecuador.

LA GUAÑA, Ecuador, 14 August (UNHCR) The Awa are an indigenous people who straddle the Ecuador-Colombia border but do not feel part of the modern societies on either side. That has not saved them suffering the consequences of the armed conflict that has battered Colombia for years.

Expecting more difficulties for the Awa ahead, a UNHCR team walked for five hours from the nearest road to reach an Awa community centre to discuss how to help them prepare for a new influx of displaced members of their traditional society arriving from Colombia. Their history is one of displacement and resilience as they maintain their own identity.

For the more than 4,000 Awa in Ecuador and some 40,000 in Colombia the border is non-existent. The ´Grand Awa Family´ is considered one territory, irrespective of internationally recognized borders. Unfortunately for the Awa people they live in one of the areas most affected by conflict.

Armed clashes between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the Colombian army have caused displacement many times across the border into Ecuador. Even though the numbers are small and people eventually return to Colombia, the impact on Awa families is immense. The Awa also have often been coerced into the conflict

Even though current peace talks between the government and FARC guerrillas have created high expectations of ending the conflict, it is expected violence will continue and reconciliation will take years. The Awa area is also affected by a variety of illicit activities, such as drugs trafficking and smuggling of arms, munitions and fuel.

Displacement is part of the Awa history as they have migrated over the years from Central America, through western Colombia to the south, always locating themselves in lush green areas between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. However, the current pressure on their territory by ´hispanos´ is making defending their boundaries a question of survival.

Their traditional way of life, existing in harmony with the natural environment, can only survive with basic outside support and respect for their territory. Even their language, Awa-pit, is only spoken by part of the Awa family, mostly the elderly.

Together with the Ecuadorian Federation of Awa Centres, the Refugee Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, local authorities and World Food Programme, UNHCR has worked with the Awa people on contingency planning for possible further cross-border displacements.

While accepting ´family´ members from Colombia is seen as natural, resources are scarce and additional support is needed. Just accessing La Guaña requires driving some three hours from the border town Tulcán, where UNHCR has a Field Office, then walking five arduous hours along paths with mud and rocks.

The 80 families in La Guaña, with six or seven members per family, welcomed the visit and discussed the current situation. Through a mapping exercise of the social and physical infrastructure, community members could easily relate to the contingency plans.

"We are worried about the situation in Colombia as our brothers continue to suffer from harassment by the guerrillas and the military present in our territory. Both sides blame us as traitors when armed incidents occur," said Victor, a community leader.

There are also rumours that authorities from both countries plan to destroy bridges over the San Juan River, the border, to stop smuggling. It would impair links between the Awa people across the border but would be unlikely to slow smuggling. Many Awa in Colombia also depend on basic services provided in Ecuador.

If there is further displacement, logistics would pose a significant challenge. New arrivals from Colombia would need basic relief items, which have to be transported by horses or even helicopter. To address the current situation UNHCR has prepositioned 10 lightweight tents in the nearby village of Chical, in the office of the local authorities.

"The local authorities fully support the plans of the Awa people -- small contingency plans for 20 Awa families from Colombia in La Guaña and 10 families in the adjacent community of Pailón," said Emilio, president of the local council. "And it should be seen as an important gesture of solidarity."

For UNHCR Ecuador and Colombia this area is of particular importance as displacement has occurred in the past and is most likely to happen again. Field offices coordinate to monitor the volatile situation.

The Awa people do not have an interest in receiving ´refugee´ status and the associated documentation: their interest is solely recognition of their distinct identity. They want respect for their territory, communication equipment, support to strengthen their community, livelihood projects and relief items in difficult times. One community member suggested that the Ecuadorian army help in social infrastructure projects, which could improve their often-strained relations with the Awa people.

"We need you to be here; there are still too many actors involved in the armed conflict and the situation is not yet resolved," community member Don Juan told the UNHCR team. "We as Awa people depend on neutral organizations to counterbalance the people with other interests."

By Jozef Merkx in La Guana




UNHCR country pages

Internally Displaced People

The internally displaced seek safety in other parts of their country, where they need help.

Displaced by Fresh Fighting in North Kivu

Waves of fighting in eastern Democratic of the Republic since late April have displaced tens of thousands of people. Many have become internally displaced within the province, while others have fled to south-west Uganda's Kisoro district or to Rwanda via the Goma-Gisenyi crossing.

The stop-start clashes between government forces and renegade soldiers loyal to former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda began in the province's Masisi and Walikale territories, but subsequently shifted to Rutshuru territory, which borders Uganda.

Between May 10-20, one of UNHCR's local NGO partners registered more than 40,000 internally displaced people (IDP) in Jomba and Bwesa sectors.

The IDPs are living in difficult conditions, staying in school buildings and churches or with host families. They lack food and shelter and have limited access to health facilities. Some of the displaced have reported cases of extortion, forced labour, beatings and recruitment of minors to fight.

UNHCR and other major aid organizations plan to distribute food, medicine and other aid. More than 300,000 people have been forcibly displaced in North and South Kivu since the start of the year, according to UN figures.

Displaced by Fresh Fighting in North Kivu

Displaced in North Kivu: A Life on the Run

Fighting rages on in various parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with seemingly no end in sight for hundreds of thousands of Congolese forced to flee violence and instability over the past two years. The ebb and flow of conflict has left many people constantly on the move, while many families have been separated. At least 1 million people are displaced in North Kivu, the hardest hit province. After years of conflict, more than 1,000 people still die every day - mostly of hunger and treatable diseases. In some areas, two out of three women have been raped. Abductions persist and children are forcefully recruited to fight. Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases have increased as the situation deteriorates and humanitarian agencies struggle to respond to the needs of the displaced.

When the displacement crisis worsened in North Kivu in 2007, the UN refugee agency sent emergency teams to the area and set up operations in several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Assistance efforts have also included registering displaced people and distributing non-food aid. UNHCR carries out protection monitoring to identify human rights abuses and other problems faced by IDPs in North and South Kivu.

Displaced in North Kivu: A Life on the Run

The internally displaced of Iraq

Eight years after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, over 1.5 million people remain displaced throughout Iraq, including 500,000 who live in dire conditions in settlements or public buildings. For these very vulnerable people, daily life is a struggle with limited access to clean water, electricity, heath services or schools for their children. Many families who live illegally in informal settlements are at risk of eviction. Most of the internally displaced fled their homes because of sectarian violence which erupted in 2006 following the bombing of the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra. UNHCR works with the Government of Iraq on projects such as land allocation; shelter assistance and house reconstruction to try to find long term solutions for the displaced.

The internally displaced of Iraq

Syria: Hope Returns to Baba AmrPlay video

Syria: Hope Returns to Baba Amr

Twelve out of 36 neighbourhoods in the city of Homs are in desperate need of reconstruction. One of them is Baba Amr, where clashes in 2011-2012 uprooted some 80,000 people. Four years on, returning residents and Syrians displaced from other parts of the country are coming together to rebuild the area.
Syria: Heading Home to RuinsPlay video

Syria: Heading Home to Ruins

Nearly half a million residents from Homs and surrounding areas have been displaced by heavy fighting, some multiple times within Syria, while others have fled abroad. One of the biggest challenges facing returnees, is rebuilding their homes in the rubble of old Homs and Hamediyeh.
Syria: High Commissioner brings help to the displaced in Syria
Play video

Syria: High Commissioner brings help to the displaced in Syria

In his first visit to Syria as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi appealed to all parties to the conflict to allow regular, unimpeded and sustained access for humanitarian organizations to besieged and hard to reach areas. He also visited a clinic and a community centre providing protection services to some of the 6.5 million people displaced inside the country.