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More than 1,000 displaced Awá face the elements and hardship


More than 1,000 displaced Awá face the elements and hardship

More than 1,000 Awá indigenous people, about half of them children, have fled fighting in their ancestral lands in south-west Colombia. They are living in tough conditions on the grounds of a town school, but for all the hardship they do not want to move further away from their homes.
8 October 2007
About half of the displaced Awa in Inda Sabaleta are children. Rain and humidity make conditions more difficult.

INDA SABALETA, Colombia, October 8 (UNHCR) - Luz Esperanza has got off to a tough start in life. She was born barely a week ago in the Indian community of Inda Sabaleta; the delivery room a flimsy, mud-washed shelter located on the grounds of a school normally used for the secondary education of Awá indigenous children from all over the territory.

The baby girl's parents were part of a group of 1,047 Awá people who sought refuge here after fleeing fighting on September 18 between government troops and an irregular armed group in their ancestral lands on south-west Colombia's Pacific coast.

They are packed into buildings - a large cement hangar and five sheds - never meant for human habitation. The heavy rain of the past few days, together with the constant high humidity, has made a difficult humanitarian situation worse.

"The first five days were terrible, the children especially were very scared and didn't understand," said Daniela, Luz Esperanza's grandmother, adding that her biggest worry now was the scarcity of clean water - and not knowing if and when she will be able to return home.

The government and humanitarian organizations began distributing food, mattresses and some medical assistance to the hundreds of displaced Awá - about half of them children - a day after their arrival in Inda Sabaleta. UNHCR contributed five water tanks with a capacity of 2,000 litres each.

But the logistics of catering for so many people in such a small site are challenging. The water tanks need to be filled by the local fire brigade, a two-hour drive away on rough roads. The sanitary conditions are especially worrying.

"It is surprising that as of today we have not had any large-scale health problems," said an aid-worker for the Colombian human rights organization, Defensoría del Pueblo. "There are 500 children here and any epidemics could be catastrophic."

But for all the hardship, the Awá do not want to move; Inda Sabaleta is still in their territory, which covers some 6,000 hectares of protected lands. Like all indigenous groups, they are bound by very strong cultural, historical and social links to the land.

"The best way is not for us to move again, this will only cause us more suffering and fear," said one of the Awá traditional leaders. "We need help here, and more than anything we need assurances that we can go back to our homes safely and live in peace. That is all we ask and it is our right."

But while the Awá want to go back home, they are scared of more fighting and of new landmines. They are calling for a civilian commission to check on safety conditions; UNHCR has agreed to take part as an observer.

"If your choice is to return to your homes, we will do everything we can to help as long as you can do so in conditions of dignity and sustainable safety," UNHCR Deputy Representative in Colombia Roberto Mignone told the group in Inda Sabaleta last week.

He added it was important that there should be a real choice between going back and staying. "We must work to improve conditions here very quickly, so that you can really choose between two safe and dignified options," he said.

There are more than 80 indigenous groups in Colombia, who together make up some 2.5 percent of the total population of the country. They are especially vulnerable to the consequences of forced displacement and UNHCR is working to support the government's efforts to protect them.

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Inda Sabaleta, Colombia