Colombia passes 'historic' law to compensate the displaced

The 'victim's law' may come too late for the families who built up new communities on their own.

Sara Miller Llana
A group of women and children spend a leisurely afternoon playing board games at the "City of Women," outside Cartagena, built by displaced families from decades of civil conflict in Colombia.

For decades, millions of Colombians have been displaced by violence among guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug gangs, and security forces. Now, a long-awaited law in Colombia paves the way for victims of the four-decade-long civil conflict to receive compensation and millions of acres of land taken from them.

The “victim’s law” was hailed as “historic” by President Juan Manuel Santos in a Twitter message Tuesday. After Sudan, Colombia has the most internally displaced people in the world: 3.3 million, according to government figures.

Officials say that the logistics of implementing the law will be challenging, possibly causing more violence in the short-term and taking as long as a decade to complete.

Faced with the pressures of finding safe and secure housing for families in the absence of functional government programs, many of the displaced have started anew on their own.

I visited one of the more remarkable communities outside Cartagena last year, where women have taken the resolution of their plight into their own hands by constructing the “City of Women” in Turbaco for their families. “Life is tranquil here,” said resident Paula Castro, as she and a group of children sat on a front porch in this housing community and played board games on a hot afternoon. A dog slept in the garden while a baby napped in a hammock.

While the security situation overall has improved in Colombia, with kidnappings down dramatically and highways secured from rebel groups, the number of displaced continues to grow. New types of violence and groups have deterred Colombians like Marlenis Hurtado from returning to their hometowns.

“The government says the situation has calmed down," but the threat from militant groups lingers over the former homes of the displaced, said Ms. Hurtado, the executive secretary of the League of Displaced Women, which was founded in the city of Cartagena to help those displaced find homes, work, and social support and took the lead in building the City of Women. “We cannot risk going back, to be displaced again.”

A safe place to live has been the primary goal of the displaced for years. When Sandra Martinez arrived in the slums of Cartagena in 2004 with her family, they rented a mud-floor shack with no bathroom. When it rained, they caught the water in pots and attempted to plug leaks in the ceiling with gum. The parents did all they could to shield their kids from the violence around them. “We came to violence from a situation of violence,” Ms. Martinez said.

The motivation behind the City of Women was to help those like Martinez, who today lives in a brick, two-bedroom home with a bathroom, kitchen, and a small backyard where she plants vegetables. Some 500 people live in this community, neatly designed on a flat plot of land that continues to evolve. At the time of my visit, a school was under construction and land had been cleared for a church and health clinic.

“Imagine what you feel when you have kids, and you do not know where you are living,” said Hurtado, a former farmer whose family fled threats in 1999. “Now we have a guarantee. Even if we do not have enough to eat every day, we have a home.”

But their lives are not without tension. Human rights groups say that leaders of the displaced face death and other threats. In 2007, the community center at the City of Women was set on fire. According to Reuters, which cites rights groups, at least 11 leaders of the land restitution movement have been killed in the last year and a half alone.

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