Sunday, June 22, 2008

Refugees in their own country: Columbia’s indigenous people caught in the middle of civil war

Colombia has the second highest internally displaced population in the world after Sudan. Approximately 3 million are displaced and a disproportionate number of them are indigenous people caught in the middle between the insurgency by the FARC and the retaliation by the government. The Embera Indians are one of the indigenous groups forced from their homes. Anastasia Moloney has this assessment:

The Embera Indians standing outside a sports hall in south Bogotá look out of place. This is not their natural environment and they don't want to be here. Normally, the indigenous Embera people live in a reserve thousands of miles away amid the virgin rainforests of Chocó in northwestern Colombia.

Faint rays of Andean sunshine peek through the windows of the sports hall that has become a makeshift shelter for 144 displaced Embera Indians who have been forced to flee their lands. Six large plastic tents with Red Cross insignia are now their homes. Women with babies tied to their backs hold plastic cups and plates as they queue for food served from a government-run soup kitchen set up in the sports hall.

These Embera Indians arrived at Bogotá's bus terminal almost five weeks ago, after three days of trekking through jungle and a long bus journey. They had sold some of their cattle to pay for the bus tickets to the capital. The government put them first in a small temporary shelter run by Franciscan monks and then moved them to this hall located in a park.

The Emberas are caught in the middle of Colombia's armed conflict. The remote and often ignored province of Chocó near the Panamanian border is a conflict zone where guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and government troops fight to take control of the area.

Alfonso Manucama, an Embera indigenous leader and elected governor of the village of Conondo in Chocó, remembers the day when four army helicopters suddenly landed in the middle of their indigenous reserve three years ago. Embera huts made from straw and palm trees and crops were damaged, says Manucama. Then came the guerrillas, shortly followed by more government troops who shot at each other in and around the reserve.

Since 2005, the Emberas have found themselves intermittently under siege, sometimes for periods of up to 40 days in their own reserve, while fighting goes on. The community, says Manucama, reached its breaking point and reluctantly decided to leave their reserve.

"When there's fighting between the military and guerrillas, we can't leave our homes to fish, to harvest our crops or look after our animals," says Manucama. "We endured hunger and our children suffered from malnutrition and disease."

Over the years, several Emberas have been injured and killed in the crossfire and landmines planted by guerrilla groups compound their problems.

Both government troops and the guerrillas accuse them of taking sides. "We don't get involved in the conflict and don't help either side," Manucama says, "but the guerrillas say we give the army food, while the army says we act as informants for the guerrillas."

Colombia has the second highest internally displaced population in the world after Sudan. It's home to roughly 3 million displaced people, and a disproportionate number are from indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups.

As the number of internally displaced people continues to rise in Colombia, over-stretched government agencies are struggling to cope. Over 8,500 displaced people from across the country arrived to Bogotá during the first five months of this year.

Embera leaders say the community feels frustrated, abandoned and hopeless. They've put together a petition to the government, with demands including a local school, bridge, and aqueduct. They also call for compensation for damage to their homes and crops from fighting between the army and guerrillas and they insist that their reserve should not be used as a battle ground.

The Emberas say they're staying in Bogotá until they're convinced the government will heed their demands.

"We come here as innocent victims determined to claim our rights as Colombian citizens and not people with a begging bowl," Manucama says. "We're not going until the government guarantees to help us. We will sleep in the streets if we have to."

The government has said the Emberas are allowed to stay in the sports hall for another week. After that, no one knows what will happen.

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