Exiled by War, Colombians Are Wanderers in Their Own Land

"I left everything behind, even my clothes," says Jorge, a muscular man standing shirtless in front of the black plastic tarp he has called home for more than two months. Jorge, who asked that his last name not be used, has lived here at a camp in Pavarand Grande with his wife and five children since they fled the crossfire that engulfed their tiny farm near the town of Riosucio in February.

Violence drove more people from their homes in Colombia last year than in Rwanda, Burundi, or Zaire, according to UNICEF. In 1996, 181,000 Colombians left their houses, schools, livestock, and crops behind and became refugees within their own borders. In the past 12 years, a million people have become desplazados - displaced people. Earlier this month, the European Union's Humanitarian Aid program granted more than $5 million to assist desplazados across Colombia.

For more than 30 years, Colombia's people have been caught in the civil conflict between left-wing guerrillas and government security forces. In recent years, private right-wing armies or "paramilitaries" have joined the melee, acting with the tacit support of Colombia's armed forces. None of the armed parties have won a decisive upper hand, but as they push the battle lines around the country, they turn hundreds of thousands of Colombia's poor into homeless wanderers.

The warring parties execute unarmed peasants they suspect of collaboration with the other side. The pretext of collaboration also allows armed groups to evict farmers from their land for pure profit. The same tactic is used by paramilitaries in the employ of drug-traffickers looking for cheap land to buy for money-laundering.

"I've never seen anything like it in my life. We're farmers, we're not used to this violence," says Raul Posada, a farmer from near Riosucio. "When the bombs started falling, I was working, and by the time I returned to the house, my wife and children were gone. I haven't seen them for two months, and I don't know where they are."

While guerrillas regularly pass through northern Choc, the Army and paramilitaries traditionally left the area alone. That changed on Feb. 27, when a bombardment by the Colombian Air Force sent 4,216 desplazados fleeing, some of them walking jungle trails for up to three weeks. The Red Cross and government relief agencies helped set up a camp for them in Pavarand Grande.

The desplazados complain that they've been caught in the middle of the Army's attempt to starve the guerrillas out of the wilderness of Choc.

Jorge Luis Cordoba, a desplazado, says the Army enforces an economic blockade - limiting the amount of goods that can be bought or sold by people from remote areas. "The Army said we were supplying guerrillas. We were afraid to even leave the village," he says. Some villagers have disappeared while traveling to markets, he adds.

"The guerrillas have forced these people to move in order to make problems for the Army. They are being used as a human shield," says Gen. Jos Manuel Bonett, commander of the Colombian Army.

General Bonett admits that the Army uses the blockade tactic, but he insists that it doesn't harm the civilian population. He confirms that there was a bombardment near Riosucio but maintains that it was far from civilian populations.

"These desplazados come from a poor, underdeveloped jungle area. At least in Pavarand they have light, water, food, and the Army to protect them," Bonett says. The desplazados prefer the conditions in the refugee camp to their harsh life in the jungle, the general says, and he expects difficulty in getting them to return to Choc.

But the desplazados insist that going home is the only thing they want. "It's not that we want to be here," Cordoba says. "The plastic doesn't keep out the rain, and during the day, it gets terribly hot. I can't sleep well, and my children are sick. But I walked here day and night for 12 days. It's not safe to return home."

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