BOGOTA - Non-governmental organizations in Colombia began to mobilize Thursday to provide support to the communities trapped in the crossfire of the civil war, which has taken a turn for the worse after the rupture of the peace talks between the government and the FARC, the main rebel group.
The United Nations also called on the armed groups involved in the conflict for a halt to all violence against the civilian population.
''We must reaffirm the democratic construction of peace and of our country,'' Jorge Rojas, the director of the non-governmental Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), which for 10 years has helped Colombians forced to flee their homes by the armed conflict, told IPS.
Representatives of human rights groups and other civil society organizations gathered Thursday to adopt a unified position with regards to the new war scenario, after President Andrés Pastrana broke off the peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) late Wednesday.
The activists warned that the heightened intensity of the war, which already claims an estimated 3,500 victims a year, would aggravate the humanitarian crisis, human rights violations and poverty in this South American country of 42 million.
''With the collapse of the talks, there will be no possibility of alleviating the tragedy faced by those Colombians who give up everything they have to avoid being killed,'' Rojas said, referring to those displaced by the violence, who number two million.
The representatives of civil society held both sides responsible for the failure of the peace process, but they had especially harsh words of criticism for the guerrillas.
''The insurgents who assumed the decision to deepen the conflict by staging attacks on the civilian population have an enormous quota of responsibility,'' stated a communique released by the activists.
The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) said they would insist on the need for peace talks, ''which will be inevitable even after the disaster of a futile war.''
They also announced that at a May peace congress, they would urge Colombia's new president to return to the negotiating table. The presidential elections are scheduled for May, and a run-off will be held in June.
Local NGOs will implement a plan to support the roughly 80,000 people living in the 42,000-square-kilometre zone in southern Colombia from which the government withdrew security forces in November 1998, one of the conditions set by the 17,000-strong FARC to engage in peace talks.
On Thursday, the armed forces invaded the guerrilla-controlled safe haven, which is also at risk of attack by the outlawed right- wing paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).
A list containing the names of 30 supposed FARC collaborators is already circulating in the town of San Vicente del Caguán, where the peace talks have been held, in the demilitarized area.
''We demand respect and protection for the civilian population, in the demilitarized zone as well as other parts of the country where thousands of peasant farmers are trapped by the paramilitary siege,'' said Rojas.
International human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch blame the paramilitary militias, which they say have close ties to the armed forces, for the lion's share of massacres of civilians committed in Colombia.
Besides the five municipalities that made up the safe haven, people in the southeastern region of Arauca, the central-western region of Catatumbo and the southern provinces of Cauca, Nariño and Putumayo are caught up in a humanitarian crisis caused by the civil war, said the activists.
CODHES said thousands of small farmers want to immediately flee the region, which lost its status as a guerrilla enclave at midnight Wednesday.
The breakdown of the peace talks coincided with the arrival in Colombia of a high-level fact-finding mission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assess the situation of the displaced.
''International concern over this problem, which is getting worse and worse, without the state providing any answers, is very important,'' said Rojas.
An average of 1,000 Colombians a day are forced out of their homes by the political violence, states the latest report by CODHES. The number of people abandoning their homes climbed from 317,375 in 2000 to 341,925 in 2001.
The displaced have been received in 586 of the country's 1,060 municipalities, says the report.
CODHES blames the displacement mainly on the paramilitaries, and secondly on the guerrillas.
But the U.S.-financed Plan Colombia anti-drug program of the government of Andrés Pastrana is also to blame. At least 36,000 subsistence farmers have fled their municipalities after the spraying of coca and poppy crops - part of the Plan Colombia - which has also hurt food crops and the health of people and livestock.
According to the CODHES report, poor people are mainly forced out of their homes in resource-rich areas with prospects for economic development.
The plight of the displaced is ''grave, dramatic and growing,'' said Rojas, who warned that the failure of the peace talks would only make things worse. Colombia has the world's fifth largest population of displaced persons.
Just a week ago, Rojas stated that ''the economic and social aspects of the problem are becoming increasingly invisible as the enthusiasm for a military solution to the conflict grows.''
Today, in a war scenario where the government's intention to use Plan Colombia funding and resources in its counterinsurgency fight is becoming more and more evident, no one doubts that the number of displaced will soar.
The United Nations said in a Thursday press release that it ''profoundly laments the rupture of the dialogue'' and that it ''recognizes the extraordinary efforts of President Pastrana'' in the search for peace in his four years in office.
''The continuous attacks committed by the FARC and the hijacking of an airplane (Wednesday), during which a national senator was taken hostage, are violations of international humanitarian law'' which weakened the peace process, said the UN communique.
The UNHCR also presented a book on forced displacement that reviews national and international regulations, legislation and jurisprudence.
According to the United Nations, states have the main responsibility at each stage of the phenomenon.
''In Colombia, indigenous people and Afro-Colombians are disproportionately represented among the displaced,'' said UNHCR delegate Anders Kompass at the presentation of the report.
The main principles that according to the UN should govern attempts to deal with the displaced, equality and non- discrimination, are not always respected in Colombia, which leads to ''the stigmatization of displaced persons,'' said Kompass.
Colombia's laws addressing the phenomenon of displacement are among the most advanced in the world, but they are not enforced, say activists. However, the Constitutional Court ruled that spending on the displaced must take priority over other kinds of social spending.
The Court also ruled that the displaced, like crime victims, have the right to know the truth and are entitled to justice and reparations.
In the face of the imminent rise in the number of displaced persons, the Solidarity Network, which also assists people who have been forced to flee their homes, announced a contingency plan for the five municipalities that lost the status of a rebel- controlled enclave Thursday, and for neighboring areas.
Copyright 2002 Inter Press Service