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Colombia: Mission reports high possibility of new large-scale displacement in west

Briefing notes

Colombia: Mission reports high possibility of new large-scale displacement in west

23 November 2004

A one-week UNHCR mission to the municipality of Bojaya, in Colombia's western province of Chocó, confirmed deteriorating humanitarian conditions and an increasingly fearful civilian population alarmed by reports that FARC guerrilla and paramilitary forces are again massing in the area.

Civilian communities and organisations working in Chocó told UNHCR, which completed its mission over the weekend, that there is a high possibility of new, large-scale displacement from the isolated area and that civilians could get caught in the crossfire.

This is the same region that received international attention in May 2002, when 119 people taking refuge in a church in the town of Bellavista were killed by explosives. Thousands of people left the area after the massacre, and hundreds of them have still not returned.

Armed groups are increasing their presence, notably near the Afro Colombian and indigenous Embera communities along the Bojaya and Opogado rivers, adding to the already difficult protection situation of the civilian population, which numbers in the thousands.

Blockades imposed by the armed groups to prevent goods from reaching their enemies have also increased, tightening their stranglehold on the population. Along the Opogado, one of the tributaries of the Atrato River, for example, civilians are suffering from a marked increase in malaria and malnutrition. The Embera communities along the river are struggling to feed themselves, since even heading out along the river to fish can put them at risk.

The situation has been eased somewhat by the re-launch in mid-October of a UNHCR-sponsored humanitarian riverboat - dubbed "Noah's Ark" - which brings basic goods to community stores along the Atrato. Because of its neutrality, the UNHCR boat has access to areas which are otherwise cut off by the blockade. But despite this effort, there are serious and growing shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities in these isolated communities.

Several of the communities affected by the current deteriorating conditions had already been displaced previously and returned to their homes. Now, renewed insecurity could force them to flee yet again. Government presence among the returnee communities has been quite weak after their return, which has contributed to the villagers' sense of vulnerability.

The region has already seen several large-scale displacements this year due to increasing clashes between various armed groups, as well as with the Colombian military forces. In March, 1,200 indigenous Embera fled their homes along the Opogado, Napipi and Bojaya rivers following clashes between the armed groups. They returned four months later, only to find themselves once again exposed today. In May, over 1,000 Afro Colombians fled their homes and sought refuge in Bellavista following fighting between the army and the FARC guerrillas.

UNHCR reiterates its requests to Chocó's civil and military authorities to urgently address this serious situation with local authorities and the communities in Bojaya. We have also expressed our concern to government officials in Bogota and are continuing to monitor the situation through regular missions to the area.