Over 30 different communities from the northern department of Bolivar plan to carry out a non-violent march from El Carmen to Cartagena to demand state recognition of their status as victims of Colombia’s armed conflict.
The march is currently set to begin on April 5 and will culminate with a meeting in the government center of Bolivar’s capital city, Cartagena de Indias, on April 11.
The community leaders are now in talks with the department’s governor, who reportedly is offering a dialogue before the march in order to prevent the action, however the march organizers insist they will go ahead if they don’t get what they want from the government.
The region’s population, once a productive agricultural community, became victims of an armed conflict resulting from the arrival of rebel groups FARC, ELN and defunct paramilitary organization AUC in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The conflict, which arose out of a battle for territory between the groups along with a lack of state presence in the region, led to “enormous human rights violations” including the massacres in the town of Macayepo in 2000 as well as the progressive displacement of the majority of the population due to massacres, torture, threats, forced disappearances, the planting of land mines and selective assassinations throughout the communities.
Larisa Zehr, a member of Seed, a faith-based project helping the communities to arrange the march, spoke to Colombia Reports about the situation the people of El Carmen have been left in and what they hope to achieve from the march.
According to Zehr, of all the communities affected, only those displaced from Macayepo were “semi-assisted” by the government during their return in 2004 (half the community has now returned). The other communities have had to make their own way back without government support, and have returned to find their livelihoods devastated, their land spoiled and a “complete lack of institutional presence.”
During the absence of the local community, an unidentified root disease reportedly resulted in an 80% decline in the local avocado crop, which used to be the emblematic crop of the region and has put the returning population in a state of enduring social and economic poverty without the necessary resources or support to improve their situation.
Seed’s press release for the march describes the communities as suffering from a “lack of dignified housing, the lack of education, health, sewage, water and electric services, the lack of access roads, and a lack of productive projects, among others.”
Zehr, who lives in Macayepo, confirmed the debilitating effects on the population from the “lack of attention from the municipal government in every service,” adding that the local health clinic has been empty since the communities returned and that schools start from two to six months late every year.
Faced with corruption at local and departmental levels, Zehr confirmed that the community leaders feel they need to gain national attention in order to receive meaningful institutional aid in their attempt to regain the lives they had before the destructive conflict.
The march, which is also being supported by the United Nations Development Program (PNUD) as well as several local foundations will be carried out by 1000 members of the local community, whose principal aim is to achieve the visibility of their plight.
The community leaders will ask the government to consider a regionally based reparations plan in which matters such as healthcare and education neglect can be addressed as well as requesting subsidies to rebuild the crippled avocado crop, however the emphasis of their efforts remains on gaining recognition of their situation. Zehr stressed that the people marching are realistic about what they will receive in terms of reparations but that they feel justified in their demands for government aid and deserve the right to be recognized as victims.
President Juan Manuel Santos signed the ‘Victims and Reparations Law’ in 2011 as the country’s first attempt to redress the massive social costs caused by half a century of armed conflict.
According to Colombia’s Victims Law, a victim is “any person who has suffered damage, as a consequence of violations of the international norms of Human Rights or the International Humanitarian Law, within the boundaries of the armed conflict.” Perpetrators denounced by victims include right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing guerrillas and state forces.
Juan Manuel Santos recently declared that 158,000 victims received compensation in 2012 however a Human Rights Watch report for 2012 states that “tens of thousands of Colombians continue to be forcibly displaced every year” and includes reports estimating up to 300,000 people were displaced in 2010 alone; in the context of over half a century of armed conflict any government attempt to give full restitution to these victims is unlikely to be wholly successful.
- Non-violent March for Holistic Reparations (Seed)
- Interview with Larisa Zehr, Seed
- Más de 150.000 víctimas han sido indemnizadas en Colombia: Santos (El Colombiano)
- World Report 2012: Colombia (Human Rights Watch)