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‘Holding on with our fingernails’

Displaced people in Colombia struggle for land, home, a voice

February 10, 2010

GALAPA, Colombia

At a displacement camp surrounded by drying scrub grass, a group of people is gathered around bowls filled with water, soil and seeds.

The bowls represent all that those at the camp are fighting for, and the people gathered are members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC). They’re laying their hands on three farmers who live here, praying for hope, justice and comfort.

The farmers are just a few of the people who live in this camp, which is about the size of 51 football fields and is home to 64 families. Many have been forced off their land by paramilitary groups, joining the growing number of internally displaced people in Colombia.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, there are between 2,600,000 and 4,400,00 displaced people in Colombia — 6 to 10 percent of the population.

When farmers are forced off their land, often through threats of violence from paramilitary groups, they must find somewhere else to go. Many end up in cities, where employment and housing are in short supply.

Like many displaced people, the farmers here in Galapa want to own their own land again. They are farmers and want to keep farming. The land where they are living belongs to the town of Galapa, and the farmers are fortunate to live there while they try to get land of their own. But the situation is not stable — the farmers worry they could be told to leave and have to abandon their crops and housing.
 
“We’re here holding on with our fingernails,” said Jose, who has been in Galapa for four years. “We’re trying always to get enough strength to keep going.”

Translated from Spanish to English by IPC members and PC(USA) mission co-worker Mamie Broadhurst, Jose spoke of his life in the displacement camp and his wishes for the future.

“Where I came from, I had land and I had my life secure,” he said.

Jose was a law student in 1979 when he was kidnapped by the EPL (Ejército Popular de Liberación, or Popular Liberation Army), a leftist guerilla group. Jose was kidnapped for four months before he was rescued. He was later kidnapped by paramilitaries and the country’s largest guerilla group, FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

“I barely got out with my life, but God is good and I was able to leave,” Jose said, removing his shirt and turning around to show scars on his back from where he was beaten by his captors.
 
Each time he escaped his kidnappers, Jose just ran. He didn’t know his rights, he didn’t realize he was a displaced person and he didn’t know the Colombian government was supposed to help him.
 
Finally, Jose registered as a displaced person and now asks for help, but he wants to work. Begging is very hard on him, and he wants to find work and live with dignity. Jose has children and also must provide for them, finding ways to get supplies and transportation for their schooling.

Jose is also an advocate for other displaced people, especially in the area of health care. He said it’s important for people to know their rights and get what they are entitled to.

Advocacy is a key goal of ANDESCOL, the National Association of the Displaced in Colombia.

The non-profit encourages displaced people to come together and advocate for laws that will benefit them.

“Our very same government has impoverished us,” said Antonio, a leader with ANDESCOL.

The government doesn’t want displaced people to know their rights, and when people clamor for their rights, the government calls them guerillas, he said. One law that ANDESCOL wants enforced is Law 387, which was adopted in 1997 by the Colombian government and is meant to protect the rights of displaced people.

Although the law is on the books, it isn’t being fulfilled, said Antonio.

One way that Presbyterians is the United States can help displaced Colombians is through advocacy, said Broadhurst, the PC(USA) mission co-worker.

She and her husband and fellow co-worker, Richard Williams, will be traveling back to the States next month to attend Ecumenical Advocacy Days. The annual event focuses on mobilizing a Christian voice in domestic and international issues through worship, witness and lobbying. This year’s theme is A Place to Call Home: Immigrants, Refugees and Displaced Peoples.

Williams and Broadhurst encouraged any Presbyterians who can travel to Washington, DC, to do so for the event, March 19-22.

“We, through the miracle of the church, are able to go to our government and share their stories,” Williams said. “To me, that’s a miracle of the gospel.”

Antonio emphasized that ANDESCOL isn’t asking for money — instead, it wants help finding a way out of poverty and back to land.

“The best thing we have is a spirit of work,” he said. “When we have our own land, we have chicken, pigs, cattle, turkey, food … we don’t need the help of the government. We are the people that produce so the people of Colombia can themselves be sustained.”

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