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Emergency campaign brings sense of identity for hundreds of Colombians forced to flee violence


Emergency campaign brings sense of identity for hundreds of Colombians forced to flee violence

The U.N. refugee agency conducts an emergency registration campaign for some 1,400 people who were forced to flee their remote communities in south-western Colombia to escape armed conflict.
15 May 2006
A registration team sets up the satellite van at the start of the emergency documentation campaign for newly-displaced people in south-western Colombia.

SANCHEZ, Colombia, May 15 (UNHCR) - In a crowded church hall in the small village of Sanchez, Jose* waits in line with his three young children and recalls the day when a bullet slammed through the tin roof of his farmhouse and lodged in the kitchen wall just inches from his daughter. It was time to leave.

Until three weeks ago, José and his family lived in El Alto, a tiny community about an hour's walk uphill from Sanchez. Then his small farm, nestled in the hollow between two disputed hills, got caught in the crossfire and Jose's family became displaced within their own country.

Today, José and his children wait patiently in line on the first day of an emergency documentation campaign organised jointly by UNHCR and the Colombian Registry Office.

"It's the only good thing that will come out of this," José says. "We have nothing to go back to and we don't know how we are going to live now, but at least the children will have documents. They will not be like us, going through life like animals without anyone even knowing that we exist."

In all, more than 1,400 people from 19 communities took refuge in Sanchez on April 17-18 to escape heavy air-to-ground fighting between army helicopters and members of an irregular armed group. The vast majority of the displaced are of Afro-Colombian descent. Some came by foot, others by boat up the Patia River. There are no roads worthy of the name in this remote part of the Western Cordillera of the Andes.

The communities in this part of south-western Colombia are so isolated that many people, including José and his family, have never had access to any state services. They don't even hold a birth certificate to officially acknowledge their existence. This state of limbo can prove fatal, particularly in a part of the country where conflict between irregular armed groups rages and being unable to prove your identity can be a matter of life and death. When the violence forces people to flee their communities, lack of documentation only adds to the huge problems of displacement.

"Many displaced people miss out on the help they are entitled to from the government because they cannot even prove who they are," says Roberto Meier, UNHCR's representative in Colombia. "Proper documentation is the right of any citizen and in the case of displaced people, it is crucial that this right is respected. It is not only a question of access to services, but also of protection. People whose existence is not even known are terribly vulnerable to exploitation and all forms of violence."

In order to ensure that as many displaced people as possible are properly documented, UNHCR has been working with the Unit for Attention to Vulnerable Populations of the Colombian Registry Office since 2004. Since then, more than a quarter million people have been registered in cities, villages and remote communities with large populations of displaced people.

To reach out to these communities, the three mobile units available for the project have travelled thousands of miles to the most isolated parts of Colombia. They come equipped with computers, fingerprint materials, cameras and a satellite antenna to connect the unit with the national database in Bogota. In cases of mass displacement like in Sanchez, an emergency campaign can be organised in the space of only a few days.

In Sanchez's church hall, 73-year-old Olga looks slightly bewildered when she is asked to stand up and swear that she is who she says she is. She has lived all her life in a small river settlement some three hours away, and neither she nor her 15 children were ever registered with the state. Her case presents the registration team with a problem. The law requires the presence of two witnesses who have an identity card and have known the person from birth. A simple enough requirement, but it proves impossible to meet in Olga's case since the only person from her settlement with an identity card is 30 years younger than her. In the end, he and the local priest act as witnesses.

"We try to be as flexible as the law allows us to be when dealing with such cases," says Zandra Muñoz, the project's coordinator. "Our aim is to bring fast-track documentation to extremely vulnerable populations in emergency situations and we are doing everything we can to make sure everyone who needs it gets registered."

The job is not an easy one. Word has gone round that the mobile registration unit is in Sanchez, and hundreds of people are queuing patiently in and outside the church, determined not to miss out on the chance of finally getting an identity card. The heat is overwhelming and the team of seven government officials works without a break to get through as many people as possible so as not to disappoint anyone.

Tiny Elena is one of the lucky ones. Born in Sanchez two days earlier, she is one of the few babies in this region to be registered in her first week of life. She is named on the spot because her mother, Adriana, had not yet decided what she would call her but is now told she must make up her mind in order to register the baby. The young mother looks embarrassed - she would have named her daughter earlier, she says, but too much has been going on for her in the past few weeks.

"I was inside the house when the helicopter came," she says. "I didn't think much of it at first, but then I heard gunfire and what sounded like bombs falling on the roof of the house. I was so scared it took me maybe half an hour before I found the courage to run to my mother's house to get my little boy. Everyone was running but we did not know which way to go - down the river or by foot, we didn't know which was more dangerous."

She stares in wonder at her new identity card and her children's registration papers. With these, she says, she might be able to send them to school, one day. But the hope is short-lived. Sitting under a wooden statue of Christ - an import from Ecuador and a source of much pride among the local community - Adriana soon falls into despair again.

"I do not know what we will go back to," she says. "Everything has gone now and I do not know how we will feed the children. I do not see any solution for us. Sometimes, it is so hard that I think it would be easier to die."

* All names have been changed for security reasons.

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Sanchez, Colombia