Some 1,200 people in a region of northwestern Colombia that was the site of a church massacre two years ago have fled their homes in fear of impending clashes between various armed groups in the country’s decades-old civil war, and the numbers seem to be climbing, the United Nations refugee agency warned today.
A UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) team visited Bellavista in Chocó province yesterday and confirmed that some 1,200 Afro-Colombians had fled their communities along the Bojayá River, where left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and right-wing United Self-Defence Forces (AUC) paramilitaries are reportedly massing while the Colombian Army prepares an offensive.
In the latest of several recent warnings over the situation in the area, UNHCR said 5,000 of the roughly 7,000 people living in the municipality of Bojayá could be at direct risk of displacement, according to the local authorities.
The agency called on all parties to abide by the principles of international humanitarian law and respect the civilian population.
The region is notorious for a May 2002 massacre, when 119 people taking refuge in the church at Bellavista were killed by mortar during fighting between FARC and AUC. Thousands of people left the area then and hundreds of them have still not returned.
Last year, clashes between various armed groups, and with the Colombian military forces, resulted in several large-scale displacements. In March, 1,200 indigenous Embera fled their homes along the Opogado, Napipi and Bojayá rivers following, returning over the summer. In May, over 1,000 Afro-Colombians fled and sought refuge in Bellavista following fighting between the Colombian army and FARC.