For the second time this week, the United Nations refugee agency today voiced alarm for indigenous communities in Colombia, where more than 1,700 Wounaan are fleeing their ancestral land after two of their leaders were killed by members of an irregular armed group in northwestern Chocó region.
By yesterday afternoon, 400 Wounaan had arrived in Istmina, eight hours by boat from their homes, and a boat carrying 200 more had to stop for the night in a small settlement further downriver after running out of gasoline, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told a news briefing in Geneva.
In the next few days, many more families are expected to make their way upstream from Wounaan ancestral territories. UNHCR Americas bureau director Philippe Lavanchy went to Istmina on Tuesday and met with local authorities to ask them to provide the displaced Wounaan with adequate aid, including shelter, food and security.
He also met with the displaced people, who stressed that it was extremely important that their community not be split and asked to be able to remain as a group near the San Juan River, which they said was an integral part of their culture and key to their survival as a community.
More than 40 years of fighting between Government forces, leftist rebels and rightist paramilitaries, as well as other violence, has displaced 2 million Colombians, with the country’s 1 million indigenous people particularly affected. UNHCR has warned that some of their communities are threatened with extinction.
In the latest incident, panic spread among the Wounaan after an irregular armed group killed two of their leaders in the space of 24 hours last week. Armed men burst into a classroom in Unión Wounaan on 30 March and left with the school’s 37-year-old teacher. He was found dead a few hours later, his body showing signs of torture.
The following day, another Wounaan leader was found dead after being taken away by members of the same irregular armed group. He too was a schoolteacher. There are fears that more assassinations could follow as other leaders have received threats.
Those arriving in Istmina said 1,000 people remain in Wounaan territory waiting to make the trip upriver. There are not enough boats and gasoline for them to travel together in one group, and Wounaan leaders say they are very worried for the safety of those families that will be last to leave.
They are also extremely concerned about the community's long-term prospects, saying that they cannot go back as long as irregular armed groups continue to be present on their territory.
Colombia is home to some of the world's oldest and smallest indigenous groups. Like the Wounaan, many are at high risk not only of displacement, but even of extinction because of the Colombian conflict. All indigenous communities have close links to their ancestral land, on which their cultural survival depends.