Old men keep the ghosts at bay in Colombian village

News Stories, 10 March 2008

© UNHCR/M.-H.Verney
UNHCR staff visit a semi-deserted village in Arauca department.

ARAUCA, Colombia, March 10 (UNHCR) It seems like an idyllic country scene: three old men sit under the shade of a bougainvillea watching the sun go down over the plains of north-east Colombia. But something's seriously wrong in their dusty village, where nothing else moves and the houses are mere shells.

There is no other sign of life, while only bits of old furniture and a few broken toys scattered around the empty buildings testify that, not so long ago, close to 200 families (about 1,000 people) lived here. That all changed when Colombia's long-running internal conflict came to this corner of Arauca, an oil and resources-rich department on Colombia's border with Venezuela.

Ernesto's family left in January; one of the last to flee because his daughter did not want to leave him on his own. "I told her to go for the sake of the children," the 60-year-old told UNHCR during a visit to his village in Arauca last month. "All their friends had gone and they had nothing to do."

But Ernesto refuses to go, despite the intense fighting of the past few months and his daughter's entreaties. His two companions, however, have been thinking of leaving for Venezuela or a nearby town.

Their one-street village has nothing left to offer. The local school closed its doors in the middle of last year. "The teacher was one of the first people to leave," Ernesto says. The roof and doors have been dismantled and only the skeleton of the building still stands.

One of the few remaining walls provides clues about the reason for the population exodus. It bears graffiti scrawled up by one of two irregular armed groups who have been fighting a bitter turf war in Arauca.

In the past two years, the Arauca region has seen a 35 percent increase in forced displacement, according to UNHCR figures. It has become a high priority zone for the UN refugee agency, which recently opened an office in the departmental capital, also called Arauca.

The largely rural region of some 300,000 people is rich in natural resources, including oil. The black gold was what drew Ernesto and many others to the region during the first oil boom 28 years ago. It also later attracted the attention of the irregular armed groups with disastrous results for many.

In the past two years, 16 percent of Ernesto's municipality's population has been forced to flee as a result of the armed conflict. While the smaller, more remote villages empty out, the towns are overcrowded with more and more people fleeing the countryside for the relative safety of the towns and cities.

But the conditions in urban areas are often terrible. Displaced families frequently end up in makeshift settlements on the outskirts, with no basic services like running water or electricity and little if any access to health and education.

During his meetings last month with local authorities, the UNHCR Representative in Colombia Jean-Noël Wetterwald recognized the efforts of the government and its Acción Social agency in dealing with the crisis.

Wetterwald also stressed the importance of good coordination between the central and local authorities to meet the challenges ahead. "It is important that the towns and cities trying to cope with the situation on the ground should have access to national resources and mechanisms," he said.

"Fleeing home is the option of last resort for most people," he noted, adding that it was "only taken when everything else has failed and under conditions of fear and violence difficult to imagine by those who live in safer environments."

As the sun finally sets, Ernesto and his friends prepare for another night in their deserted village. They have talked about it and have decided to stay for now. "As long as we have food," they agree, "we are better off here."

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Arauca, Colombia