More than 2,000 people have fled their homes in a region of northwestern Colombia that was the site of a notorious church massacre three years ago, and thousands more are at grave risk of being displaced by fighting between irregular armed groups, the United Nations refugee agency warned today.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) repeated its call to all parties in the South American country’s decades-old civil wars to abide by the principles of international humanitarian law, respect the civilian population and guarantee the safety of humanitarian workers.
Over the weekend hundreds of people from the Afro-Colombian community of Pogue sought refuge in the town of Bellavista from the fighting and some 7,000 more in Bojaya municipality of Choco Province could be at direct risk of displacement, according to local authorities, in what UNHCR called “the increasingly critical situation.”
UNHCR sent a team to Bellavista on Friday. “We will maintain a temporary presence through regular missions to the zone, enabling close monitoring of developments and coordination with authorities in the provision of humanitarian assistance,” spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told a news briefing in Geneva.
A further 4,000 indigenous people belonging to the Embera and Wounaan communities along the Cuia and Bojaya rivers are also at grave risk of becoming internally displaced by severe hardship and insecurity caused by irregular armed groups on their land, Ms. Pagonis said.
Indigenous people have told UNHCR field officers that the groups 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 are unable to return to their homes because of the blockade.
Others have suffered harassment and intimidation from the groups who fired shots in the air and threatened to kill the men and rape the women.
Tensions have risen in recent months as left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and right-wing United Self-Defence Forces (AUC) paramilitaries have been reported to be massing while the Colombian Army prepares an offensive.
In the May 2002 massacre, 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.