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Colombia: Peace Community murders must be investigated

Briefing notes

Colombia: Peace Community murders must be investigated

11 January 2002

UNHCR is increasingly concerned about the deteriorating situation in Colombia and its impact on innocent civilians, particularly in light of the latest impasse in the peace talks and the recent murders of two Peace Community leaders in the northern part of the country. UNHCR, which works to strengthen Colombia's capacity to protect and assist people internally displaced by the fighting, fears that intensification of the conflict will lead to additional displacement and human suffering.

We were particularly outraged by the murders in late December of two leaders of the Peace Communities of the Atrato River. The murdered leaders - Petrona Sánchez and Edwin Ortega - were both dedicated to serving their community, especially children and women, and to creating an environment in which people could live together in peace. Peace Communities were established in the late 1990s for thousands of displaced people from the Urabá area in northern Colombia. The communities are a unique initiative to allow peaceful return of displaced people to their places of origin. They send a message of neutrality in the face of the conflict, and of resistance to the violence in Colombia. UNHCR, together with the Diocese of Apartadó in Colombia, supports various activities of the Peace Communities.

We have expressed our condolences to the families and the communities of the two leaders and urge all armed actors in Colombia to respect the lives of all civilians who are part of the Peace Communities. UNHCR also hopes that these deplorable events will be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted. The murders clearly show the difficult situation facing the Peace Communities and the risks confronting their leaders. The events also highlight the suffering endured by civilians throughout Colombia, where the nearly 40-year conflict has uprooted well over a million people. Many have been forced to flee their homes within Colombia, while others have sought safety in neighbouring countries and further abroad.

In Colombia, UNHCR has an office in Bogota as well as three field offices in Apartadó, Barrancabermeja and Puerto Asís. We also have offices in neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador, including field offices in the border regions of both countries. In late August 2001, UNHCR opened a new field office in San Cristobal, Venezuela, near the border with Colombia. Currently UNHCR is stepping up its presence in areas that might see cross-border movements of Colombians.