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"Paradise" found as UNHCR starts documentation in northern Colombia

"Paradise" found as UNHCR starts documentation in northern Colombia

The remote town of El Paraiso has kicked off a campaign by UNHCR and the Colombian National Registry to issue identity documents to some 10,000 indigenous people in the Alta Guajira. This is part of a nationwide effort to offer State protection and assistance to displaced and at-risk communities.
2 August 2004
The UNHCR-sponsored documentation campaign arrives in El Paraiso, La Guajira.

LA GUAJIRA, Colombia, August 2 (UNHCR) - At the northernmost tip of South America, the La Guajira peninsula juts out like an exploring toe dipping into the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. This hot and arid region, visited in the past by English, French and Dutch privateers and corsairs who exchanged contraband from the West Indies for salt and pearls from the local inhabitants, is the home of the proud Wayúu people, the most numerous of Colombia's indigenous groups.

Desert-dwellers and travellers, the Wayúu have for centuries traded across the dusty plains, using the unmarked trails that criss-cross the peninsula to carry all kinds of goods. The knowledge of these trails is jealously kept from strangers by the clans that control the different trade routes. To the Wayúu, the international boundary that separates the Colombian from the Venezuelan Guajira has no reality outside the maps, and they wilfully ignore it, engaging in what outsiders insist on calling "smuggling" but what to them is only a means to survive in this unforgiving environment.

Although occasional violence between Wayúu clans was not uncommon, the region had been largely spared the worst effects of the long bloody internal war that has marred Colombia during the last 40 years. This relative isolation from the conflict was shattered on April 18 this year when a large group of heavily armed men moved into the small seaside hamlet of Puerto Portete, where about 50 Wayúu families made a living from fishing and from "taxing" the speedboats and cargo ships that would regularly land smuggled goods in the bay.

In what is widely believed to be a bid to secure trafficking routes in the Alta Guajira region, the armed men killed a still unknown number of victims. Local witnesses speak of 12 people dead and 30 disappeared. The massacre provoked an exodus of people into other parts of La Guajira and as far as Maracaibo in Venezuela.

Colombian Army troops are now present in Puerto Portete but, so far, only six Wayúu families have returned. Standing on a windswept hill overlooking the grey sea, the hamlet looks from a distance like a mirage. Closer inspection reveals an actual ghost town, with abandoned houses with rickety doors slamming in the wind and an eerily empty school.

Sixta Zuniga, the ombudswoman of Uribia, the nearest town, says that security in the Alta Guajira region has improved with the arrival of the Army, but people are still afraid. "When they hear a car coming, people run to hide, fearing that it may be the armed men returning," she says. "What shocked and dismayed the Wayúu most of all was the killing of women. Wayúu clans are matrilineal and women are highly respected as the sources and keepers of the blood lineages."

"The impact of displacement on indigenous groups is particularly destructive because of their strong ties to their land," explains Isabel Selles, who heads UNHCR's office in Barranquilla, which covers the zone. "This case is no exception. Since displacement affects indigenous men, women and children in different ways, our response has to take into account their different needs."

At the request of the "Dusakawi" regional Wayúu organisation, UNHCR is currently helping the National Registry to carry out a campaign to issue identity documents to some 10,000 people in the Alta Guajira.

"The campaign will last from July 11 to August 17 and is part of a nationwide strategy to provide protection to displaced and at risk communities," explains Aldo Morales, the UNHCR project coordinator. "Without identity documents, people cannot exercise their rights as citizens nor have proper access to services. By giving them documents we are giving them access to both protection and assistance from the State."

In order to reach remote communities in need of documents, the National Registry uses a vehicle that makes the long and perilous journey to areas such as the Alta Guajira. This mobile documentation unit, paid for and equipped by UNHCR, makes use of the latest satellite technology to link up to the Registry database in Bogota. It also carries the means to take blood samples and take photographs, both of which are mandatory in order to obtain identity documents according to Colombian law.

Wayúu women receive ID cards during the documentation campaign in El Paraiso.

"The mobile unit has taken me to some of the most remote regions of Colombia, but I never thought it would take me to Paradise," jokes Jairo Grueso, driver and operator of the mobile documentation unit. El Paraiso ("Paradise" in Spanish) is the name of the hamlet where the Guajira campaign kicked off.

To get there, UNHCR hired a Wayúu guide in Uribia to take the team across the desert. They left at six in the morning as the temperature started rising. They drove through dry river beds and cacti fields, past salt flats and low scrubland. When they arrived three hours later, a large number of people were queuing to have their blood samples taken. Some had ridden donkeys or bicycles or even walked as far as 10 km to avoid missing this unique chance to get an ID card.

As the UNHCR team approached the crowd, sheltering from the harsh sun under a communal thatched construction, the Dusakawi representative came forward with greetings. "You have finally arrived," he said with a smile. "Welcome to Paradise."