A Colombian town doubles in size as thousands flee fighting
EL CHARCO, Colombia, 20 April (UNHCR) - At the mouth of the Tapaje River in Colombia's Pacific Coast region, the small port town of El Charco is struggling to cope with one of the biggest mass displacement crises to affect the country in recent years.
With the arrival of more than 7,200 people fleeing fighting further up the river, El Charco's population has doubled in the past four weeks. This part of the department of Nariño is remote and very poor, and the town lacks basic infrastructure even for its own inhabitants. The presence of so many newcomers has thrown it into a state of humanitarian emergency.
In many of the small timber houses along the riverfront, at least two or three families are cramped together. In one small hut, seven families share a space of no more than 20 square metres. The heat is extreme and there is no running water, any epidemic in such a climate and conditions could have disastrous consequences.
"We have been here almost three weeks now and the children are exhausted, but at least they are healthy. My biggest fear is that one of them will fall sick," one young woman with five small children told a visiting UNHCR team in El Charco this week.
Other families have been put up in the gymnasium, in the school, on the top floor of a building still under construction near the main square. Every single inch of space is occupied; almost everyone is sleeping on the floor: there are mattresses for only one out of every seven people. Food is prepared in small open braziers inside the buildings.
"We knew there was a high risk of displacement and we thought we were prepared, but we never imagined the amplitude the crisis would take," the Mayor of El Charco, Victor Candelo, told UNHCR. He added that more than 7,200 people have registered as displaced since 22 March.
The Tapaje River is populated by small settlements of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. For years, there has been very little state presence and irregular armed groups have exercised strong control over the area. The Colombian State is now recovering territory along the river.
"I was alone in the house when the fighting began," said Francisca, who was caught in crossfire in the settlement of Magdalena. "The bullets came from everywhere. When they stopped, I ran to the river and left in a fisherman's canoe."
Slowly, aid is coming from the government and the international community, but the logistics of sending assistance to this part of Colombia are highly complex. There are no roads across the thick tropical forest and the rivers provide the only usual means of transportation. The situation in the nearby village of La Tola, where another 760 people have taken refuge, is also very difficult.
The crisis could get worse. More communities further up the river may be obliged to flee to El Charco in the coming weeks and local authorities fear an influx of thousands more people. UNHCR is reinforcing its presence in the area and, in view of the scale of the crisis, is exceptionally sending some emergency humanitarian assistance, including much-needed mosquito nets and clothes.
"We appreciate the authorities' efforts to help the displaced population, yet still more needs to be done and we will do all we can to complement the government's assistance," UNHCR Deputy Representative in Colombia Roberto Mignone said in El Charco, stressing the importance of updating and strengthening contingency plans.
He added that one possible way to lessen hardship and over-crowding would be to offer alternative shelters in villages around El Charco, as proposed by Afro-Colombian leaders. Five assembly points already exist along the river, but they lack basic infrastructure and organizational support.
Over the past year, the department of Nariño has suffered some of the worst fighting and violence resulting from the armed conflict inside Colombia. There have been mass displacements in several other municipalities and large parts of the region continue to be at high risk.
By Marie-Hélène Verney in El Charco, Colombia