Hundreds at risk in western Colombia, warns UNHCR
BOJAYA, Colombia, April 4 (UNHCR) - Some 250 Colombians caught in the cross-fire between irregular armed groups have fled their community in Bojayá, western Colombia, bringing the number of people displaced in the area in recent weeks to more than 2,000. UNHCR has sent a team to assess the worsening humanitarian situation.
Fighting between irregular armed groups is now taking place in the countryside surrounding Bellavista, the municipal capital of Bojayá in Chocó province. The town is sadly known for the May 2002 massacre, when 119 people taking refuge in a church were killed during fighting between FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas and AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) paramilitaries.
The UN refugee agency has issued repeated warnings about the worsening humanitarian situation in the Bojayá area and called on the Colombian government and the international community to take urgent action to avoid a potential humanitarian disaster.
On Saturday, some 250 out of the 350 Afro-Colombian inhabitants of Pogue on the Bojayá river fled to Bellavista, escorted by Colombian authorities from the Ombudsman's office, the General Procurator's Office as well as representatives of community associations. They had been caught between irregular armed groups for the last two weeks.
The weekend arrivals in Bellavista are living with relatives in crowded conditions, with some houses hosting as many as 45 people. They have received some food from the municipality.
Some 4,000 indigenous people belonging to the Embera and Wounaan communities along the Cuia and Bojayá rivers are also at grave risk of becoming internally displaced by severe hardship and insecurity caused by the presence of irregular armed groups on their land.
Indigenous people told UNHCR field officers that irregular armed groups operating in the area have imposed a blockade and prevented food, medicine and other vital supplies from reaching their villages. Some 150 indigenous people who travelled to Bellavista recently to obtain supplies have not been able to return to their homes because of the blockade. Others have suffered harassment and intimidation from the armed groups who fired shots in the air and threatened to kill the men and rape the women.
On Friday, a UNHCR team left for Bellavista in response to the critical situation in the region. The agency will maintain a temporary presence through regular missions to the zone, in order to monitor developments closely and to help coordinate humanitarian assistance with the authorities.
Prior to the weekend's arrivals, there were already some 1,700 people who had been displaced since February and who were living in overcrowded conditions in Bellavista with limited access to health and education. Many of them have been housed in the town's school building and this has disrupted the education of the local children, who have not received lessons since mid-February. In all, more than 600 children are now unable to attend school due to the lack of classrooms and teachers, who have fled to Quibdó.
UNHCR, together with the local authorities and other UN agencies, is building four temporary shelters to relocate these displaced people to ease overcrowding and allow the children to return to school. The shelters are expected to be ready by the end of this week.
Meanwhile, cases of diarrhoea, malaria, sexually-transmitted diseases and acute breathing infections continue to increase among the displaced communities.
Thousands of people left the Bojayá area after the May 2002 massacre. Hundreds of them have still not returned. Since then, eight large-scale displacements have taken place in the area due to clashes between various armed groups, and with the Colombian army.
UNHCR calls once again on all parties to the Colombian conflict to abide by the principles of international humanitarian law, to respect the civilian population and to guarantee the safety of humanitarian workers.
By William Spindler and Gustavo Valdivieso