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Villages empty out as more people flee violence in north-east Colombia


Villages empty out as more people flee violence in north-east Colombia

UNHCR is concerned about the humanitarian situation in the Catatumbo region of north-eastern Colombia. Since the start of the year, violence in the Catatumbo has intensified, leading to another wave of forced displacement from one of the areas hardest hit by the Colombian conflict.
21 September 2006
Maria Luz and her cousin in the one-bedroom house they share with three adults and 10 other children in the city of Cucuta. The young girl and her family fled violence in the north-east of Colombia.

CÚCUTA, Colombia, September 21 (UNHCR) - Graciela was not surprised when her sister Eliana and her children arrived in the city of Cúcuta one night in early September and asked for a place to stay. Graciela had herself left the village of La Victoria more than five years earlier - what amazed her was that her sibling had stayed on for so long.

Now, La Victoria is a ghost town. The last inhabitants fled last month when members of an irregular armed group executed two of the village's young men in broad daylight. The neighbouring community of El Diamante also quickly emptied out.

"When you live in the country you know everyone around, and when someone gets killed it is as if you have lost a brother or a child," Eliana said. "The worst is not knowing why. That can really drive you crazy because if you do not understand why they kill, you are always scared that it will be you next."

La Victoria is in the Catatumbo region, which is located close to the border with western Venezuela in Norte de Santander department. The area has seen some of the worst violence and human rights violations in Colombia's long and bitter conflict.

The 1999 massacre in La Gabarra, in which some 40 people were killed by members of an irregular armed group, remains one of the bloodiest single incidents against civilians in Colombia's recent history. Another massacre two years ago left 34 coca farmers dead in the same hamlet.

In the past few months, the humanitarian situation in the Catatumbo has deteriorated even further - hundreds of people have fled the area, but exact numbers are hard to pin down because many have not registered with the authorities or UNHCR. The government has sent an extra 27,000 troops to the region and clashes with irregular armed groups are frequent.

The volatile security situation is made worse by the illegal cultivation of coca, the raw product for cocaine, with some of the illegal groups fiercely resisting government attempts to eradicate their crops.

When Eliana fled La Victoria with her six children - aged between 17 and two years old - she first went first to the small town of Sardinata. A UNHCR team visited Sardinata in early September and found about 180 people from La Victoria sheltering in the local school or with host families.

The displaced villagers said they did not want to go back. Some said one of the young men killed had been a local leader who helped organise farmers to resist the pressure put on them to grow coca.

Eliana has now joined her sister in Valle del Rodeo, a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Cúcuta. The sisters share a tiny home with Graciela's husband and the 12 children they have between them. There is no electricity and running water is available for only five hours every eighth day. But Eliana says she is grateful because other families from La Victoria have nowhere to stay.

Since the start of the year, around 2,000 people from Catatumbo have registered with the authorities as forcibly displaced - but this could be only the tip of the iceberg. Many others, like Eliana, are too scared to make themselves known.

"Many displaced people hesitate before they register," said Roberto Meier, UNHCR representative in Colombia. "A lot of them are traumatised and very scared, they do not want to talk about what has happened to them. It can also take a very long time to be recognised as an internally displaced person (IDP), and some people get discouraged. Unfortunately, it means that they miss out on the protection and assistance that registration entitles them to."

Eliana's youngest child, Maria Luz, was admitted to hospital when she fell sick with a high fever earlier in the week. She recovered within a day, but the hospital refused to release her until the bill was paid. Displaced people in Colombia are entitled to free health coverage, but because Eliana is not a registered IDP it took the intervention of the hospital's social worker to get the little girl discharged.

Now Graciela is encouraging her sister to register - even though she herself, after five years of displacement, has never done so. "We are all scared to speak up, but it is better for the children's sake," she said. "Life away from home is hard enough, and they are going to need all the help they can get."

Statistics show that with at least 2.5 million internally displaced people, Colombia is now the country with the largest population of concern to UNHCR in the world.

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Cúcuta, Colombia