Displaced Colombians turn an unwanted corner of a major coastal port into a decent home

Telling the Human Story, 4 January 2010

© UNHCR/Zalmaï
Eliécer Baron, 53, is the leader of 118 families in the Villa Gloria district of the Caribbean port of Cartagena. He and about half of the other families he lives alongside were forcibly displaced from their homes in northern Colombia. He has never felt it safe enough to go back. 'One of my friends returned two years ago,' he says. 'He was killed soon after that.'

CARTAGENA, Colombia, January 4 (UNHCR) The cascading blue waves, powdery white sand and gentle breezes are what draw tourists to Colombia's Caribbean beaches. But see the man renting chairs to the tourists? It was not a tropical idyll that drew him here, but the prospect of safety.

Eliecer Baron's mother was killed 14 years ago in northern Colombia's Uraba region when she stood up to irregular armed groups trying to steal her cattle. "At first I moved to a different region, Sucre, where I could continue living my life as a farmer," the 53-year-old recalls. "Yet two years later, the violence reached Sucre too. That was when I decided to come to Cartagena."

With a new family arriving every week from other violence-prone areas of Colombia, Eliecer and other displaced people found their own stretch of Cartagena beach and created a settlement on the outskirts of the city.

Like so many other displaced people forced off their own land, the only place they could find was one that nobody else wanted: when they arrived, the district had no electricity or other municipal services because the city authorities said it was prone to flooding, and the land ownership was in question. Displaced people like Eliecer even had to buy water in buckets.

That has changed over time and the local government now provides both water and electricity. Eliecer and 118 other displaced families who formed their own organization have also become adept at standing up for their rights, thanks to training UNHCR has provided on the rights of displaced people.

"It happens often that we have to tell the authorities here what the law is ordering them to do regarding displaced people," says one of the members of Eliecer's organization. They also educate displaced families so they can benefit from special state programmes.

The overwhelming majority of the group's members are women. "Eliecer is a gentleman," says member Ana. "He knows how to deal with people, he is respectful, and above all he knows a lot about organizing and about laws and rights."

In addition to his advocacy work, Eliecer struggles, as do many of Colombia's displaced farmers, to support his family in the city. Renting beach chairs brings in a modest income, and his wife hasn't been able to work for four years.

"She was there when my mother was killed and, ever since, she has had high blood pressure," he says. "Somehow it affected the kidneys in the last years, and now she needs dialysis treatment every second day."

These days, there are rumblings that real estate developers may want the once-undesirable terrain that Eliecer and his displaced friends call home. But, after losing his home twice before in his own country, Eliecer is standing firm.

"We were displaced before," he says with determination. "Now we're staying. We have the right to."

By Gustavo Valdivieso in Cartagena, Colombia