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The Displaced People Of Cacarica
by Nacho Martin
aged 30
Peace Brigades International -Colombia Project-
After arduous negotiations and complex preparations, the more than two thousand displaced people from the Cacarica River basin who are now in Turbo are preparing to begin a difficult process of returning to their lands. Obviously, the difficulties are many, since this is a return in the midst of an armed conflict, but the displaced people are firm in their determination. They will need all possible support at both national and international levels.
PBI provides international observation for the protection of the displaced people’s places of refuge, in Turbo and other areas, and will also provide international accompaniment for their return and resettlement.
From our wood and rope beds, with our eyes half open, we see a group of children next to our beds, looking at us. One little girl laughs as she sees that we’re waking up, because they’re waiting for us to get up and they want to play with us. We’re in the Coliseo (an old sports pavilion) in Turbo, a large space full of a chaos of mattresses, awnings, ropes, sticks and sacks, where several hundred displaced people have taken refuge. At night, coughing and the crying of babies echo through the building; some of the little ones have known no other reality than this; and when the torrential rain beats down, it gets into the building through the many leaks in the roof. For us it’s just another night’s presence in the building, but for the displaced people who shelter there, it’s been thirty months of this, thirty months of over-crowding, without any personal space and without their land.
The communities of the Cacarica River Basin (in Riosucio Municipality, Department of Chocó) were forcibly displaced from their lands in February 1997. A total of about 3,500 people are living in several shelters like this one and in the suburbs of Turbo, and also in the small village of Bocas del Atrato and in the El Cacique farm in Bahía Cupica (Chocó) (see February 1999 edition of Enfoque Colombiano).
During this time, the displaced population have been subjected to constant accusations of supporting one of the sides in the conflict (this is a common stigma which the displaced population faces in Colombia - “if he left his area, it’s because he was linked to one of the armed groups participating in the conflict”). The displaced population have suffered numerous violations of their human rights, and the institution which is accompanying their process, the Intercongregational Justice and Peace Commission, has also been threatened. According to statistics kept by this institution, about 70 people from the Cacarica River displaced population have been “disappeared” or extra-judicially executed before, during and since their displacement.
In the light of the serious concerns for the displaced people’s safety in Turbo, the PBI team maintains a regular presence in the main places of refuge, and at the most critical moments this includes presence through the night. As described at the beginning of this article, we often spend the night at the Coliseo. At night, noises from outside are cause for being alert. From time to time the lights of vehicles passing by the side of the building shine on the roof. If the vehicle stops, or comes too close, you can hear the silence. Who can it be? In the morning people wake up very early, and you hear the roosters crowing and the first conversations of the day. On coming out of the pavilion, you can see the fires already lit and the people preparing coffee and breakfast amongst the little shelters improvised with sticks and plastic sheeting; children are playing among the puddles with soft-drink bottle tops, and people sit on the benches chatting or watching the world go by. As always, enforced inactivity is one of the biggest difficulties facing the displaced. “Hello, how are you?” “So so”. This is the common response which we members of the PBI sub-team in Turbo hear so often as we make our daily rounds of the places of refuge.
Not far away, on the other side of the Gulf of Urabá, the displaced people located in Bocas del Atrato are working under an awning made of leaves and sticks; they are building a wooden boat in which they will one day begin the return to their lands, travelling up the rivers Atrato and Cacarica. They ask us to take photographs. The boat will be called “Life, Self Determination and Dignity” because, in their words, these are “the fruits which the community hopes to harvest” on its return. People continually recall their lands and their crops.
And the fact is that after these long months of displacement, the return, so often postponed, is now approaching. The dates are close at hand: the process is to begin between September and October. The communities, which have been negotiating with the Government over the conditions for their return, accompanied by Justice and Peace, succeeded in getting a Joint Verification Commission set up (with PBI participating as international observers). For the displaced, achieving the conditions for returning with security and dignity is linked to insisting that the Government assume “an attitude of recognising its responsibility and the need for justice. Truth and justice are necessary for achieving forgiveness.”
Out of the total number of displaced people from the Cacarica area, about 2,100 want to return to their lands, whilst the rest(about 400 people) want resettlement elsewhere, on a farm or in a city. The return is to be initially to temporary settlements, from which the people are to move on later to their original communities. “We’re in the middle of the war, and it’s going to continue for a while, we hope not for too long. As we are in war time, our lives aren’t the same as before, so we intend to return to villages, grouping our former communities and hamlets together. We call these places settlements. (...) The settlements are the civilian population’s territory. (...) There we will live in community, in the midst of war, as citizens in a place where life will be respected, and where we will demand respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law. No armed participant in the conflict will be allowed to enter, because otherwise we would become targets for the armed groups.” The plan is for a return (in four stages) to two settlements: “Nueva Vida (New Life)”, where 200 families are to settle in the village of Puerto Nuevo, in the local government area of Perancho, and “Esperanza en Dios (Hope in God)” where 250 families are to be located. Gradually, and to the extent that adequate security conditions are achieved, the people will return to their own villages and communities.
The displaced people have drawn up a “Proposal for a Return with Dignity”, containing five points, amongst which are the granting of community title to the lands for 24 communities of the Cacarica basin, the demand for the presence of the State (in the form of “Justice Centres”) and the right to moral reparation through knowledge of the truth about their displacement. Since the return is going to take place in the midst of the armed conflict, it’s not just a simple process of returning to the land, but of demanding protection from the authorities, and respect for their rights as civilian population.
After the negotiations with the Colombian Government, and once the State presence in the settlements is guaranteed, the displaced population will also have international protection. As well as the on-going international campaigns carried out by the displaced people and the Intercongregational Justice and Peace Commission, and the support received from several international organisations, PBI will provide a regular presence of international observers in the provisional settlements. The logistical conditions for international accompaniment are complex, because the settlements will be located on one of the tributaries of the Atrato River, more than six hours by river boat and canoe from Turbo. For this reason PBI’s presence will take the form of long stays, and communication will be reinforced by the use of a satellite telephone.
Nevertheless, because of the large area, the difficulty of communication, and the complex problems to be faced, the displaced people need more support, all possible support. The return to the Cacarica is not the end of their problems, but it is an enormous step for the displaced population, after more than two years away from their lands. Since the displaced people’s firm determination and preparation for their return is a reality, the stability and safety of this return depends, to a great extent, on that national and international support.
The community has developed five “Life Principles” essential to guarantee their safety and their community development. Each principle has its own colour:
Yellow: Truth: “We will express our feelings, we will tell what we have experienced, we will tell what we have seen, we will tell what we have believed, and what we are witnesses to.. We will denounce all abuses against our dignity, against our community.. We will make Human Rights and the Rights of Peoples our own.”
Red: Freedom: “We ourselves, women and men, will decide on our present and our future, on the basis of the community’s, the family’s and the individual’s conscience.
Blue: Justice: “Nothing of ours that was destroyed will be forgotten. Memory is the basis of our identity and the possibility of our future. In order for there to be justice, there must be recognition of what was done, public declaration of the error, and a change of life - the intention not to do it again, the sanction, the carrying out of the sanction, and reparation of the harm caused.”
Green: Solidarity: “In our project for our life together, the weakest will be the first, the privileged ones; on this
basis we will make decisions.”
Brown: Fraternity: “Together with our indigenous brothers and sisters and with the excluded of the earth, we will take part in constructing that world of dignity for all .. Respect, love and admiration with and for our sister Nature.”

Submitted at 3:07am 26th Jul, 2000
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