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Noah's Ark sails through Colombia's conflict-clogged river


Noah's Ark sails through Colombia's conflict-clogged river

The humanitarian boat is back in action after a year of repairs, bringing foodstuff and essential supplies to the people of the Atrato river who have been affected by years of economic blockade imposed by armed groups. Recognising its neutrality, the combatants have allowed the Ark to work unhindered.
29 October 2004
Relaunching Noah's Ark, the lifeboat for Atrato's river communities, in mid-October 2004.

QUIBDÓ, Colombia (UNHCR) - For the last eight years, life has been less than smooth sailing along the Atrato river. Boats plying this waterway in Chocó province, north-western Colombia, have been caught in the crossfire of warring factions.

"Boats sailing the river are frequently inspected by members of the armed groups. They often take part or even all of the cargo," said Pastor Caicedo, who works for the Major Council of the Communities of the Middle Atrato (COCOMACIA).

Since 1996, armed groups have imposed an economic blockade on the Atrato river to prevent basic supplies from reaching their enemies. Passing boats are often accused of siding with one party or the other.

But as the river traffic slows to a trickle, it is the civilians who have suffered the most. In an area where the river is the only means of transport, the blockade has restricted the movement of people. They cannot sell what they produce or buy what they need, including food, medicine and basic products like fuel, sugar and salt. Essential services like health care and education have also been affected. Clogged by conflict, life on the Atrato is in danger of drying up.

One boat that has been able to navigate around the blockade is Noah's Ark, a 50-metre-long boat owned by COCOMACIA and sponsored by UNHCR and the Catholic Diocese of Quibdó.

"It is the only boat they don't shoot at," said one merchant about the Ark, which has served as a vital lifeline for the affected population since 2000. The boat has helped to keep alive many communities along the 500 km of river from Quibdó to Turbo in the heart of Colombia's "banana zone" - people who otherwise would very likely have to move elsewhere due to the lack of food and the most basic supplies.

The Ark recently resumed its humanitarian mission along the Atrato after a year of UNHCR-funded repairs in Quibdó. Sailing up the river in mid-October, the boat carried foodstuff and passengers from Quibdó to Bellavista, the sadly famous village in Bojayá municipality where a church explosion killed 119 people in May 2002.

According to the local church, more than 800 people were killed and more than 25,000 people were forced to flee their homes in the Chocó region between 1996 and 2002.

Emphasising the neutrality of Noah's Ark, COCOMACIA's Caicedo said, "We only provide transportation to people who are recognised as members of the communities without any link to armed groups." He noted that supplies are only provided by the diocese-sponsored community stores.

All of the parties to the conflict acknowledge the boat's impartiality, allowing it to carry on its work unhindered.

Bringing foodstuff to Bellavista, the scene of a fatal church explosion in 2002.

"We are proud of our contribution to the Ark," said Roberto Meier, UNHCR's Representative in Colombia, who participated in the mid-October mission with representatives from UNHCR's donor countries and the European Union. "Helping to reopen the Atrato means helping to improve the situation for many who live at risk, and also bringing hope that is vital to these communities."

The Ark's comeback has encouraged other boats to go back to the Atrato in recent days. The humanitarian boat is currently sailing between Quibdó and Murindo, and undertaking shorter trips upon request from the communities.

By Gustavo Valdivieso
UNHCR Colombia