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Colombia: Flotilla to draw attention to humanitarian crisis

Briefing notes

Colombia: Flotilla to draw attention to humanitarian crisis

14 November 2003

This Sunday some 300 Colombians, accompanied by international diplomats and aid officials, plan to board a flotilla of some 20 boats and motor 500 kilometres along the Atrato River from Quibdó to Turbo in a week-long bid to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in this war-affected region of western Colombia.

The event, organised by the Catholic Church with local indigenous people's organisations, is sponsored by UNHCR, which operates two field offices in the area, together with a consortium of international relief organisations known as Project Counselling Services.

The Atrato, one of Colombia's main waterways, has suffered since 1996 from an almost complete blockade caused by parties to the country's civil war. More than 180,000 people live along the river, mainly indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that are suffering from a shortage of essential items like medicines, salt, cooking oil, and fuel. Illnesses like malaria are reportedly gaining ground in the region due to the lack of proper treatment as a result of the long blockade.

Violence in the region has killed more than 800 people between 1996 and 2002, forcing more than 25,000 to flee their homes. The region hit the spotlight briefly in May 2002 when 117 people were killed in Bojaya when a bomb hit a church where local residents had taken shelter during fighting between armed groups.

During the week-long event, which begins on Sunday, the flotilla of vessels will transport basic relief items to ease the suffering of the local population living along the Atrato's banks. Cultural and religious ceremonies are planned during the stops.