Humanitarian conditions in northwest Colombia are deteriorating, the civilian population is increasingly fearful over the reported massing of leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitary forces, and there is a high possibility of new large-scale flight, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.
“Several of the communities affected by the current deteriorating conditions had already been displaced previously and returned to their homes,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva. “Now, renewed insecurity could force them to flee yet again.”
The assessment came from a one-week UNHCR mission to the municipality of Bojaya in Chocó Province, 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. The agency called on all sides to “urgently address” the situation.
Armed groups, from both the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has been waging a decades-long war against the Government, and right-wing paramilitaries are increasing their presence, notably near the Afro Colombian and indigenous Embera communities along the Bojaya and Opogado rivers, adding to the already difficult problem of protecting thousands civilians in the area.
Blockades imposed by both groups to prevent goods from reaching their enemies have also increased, tightening their stranglehold on the population. Along the Opogado, 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 relaunch in mid-October of a UNHCR-sponsored humanitarian riverboat – dubbed Noah's Ark – which brings basic goods to community stores. 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, Mr. Redmond said.
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 after 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 FARC.