Published on Sunday, September 10, 2000 in the New York Times
An Aimless War in Colombia Creates a Nation of Victims
by Clifford Krauss
CARTAGENA, Colombia — Something terrible happened to Venecia Barona Mosquera, something senseless but horribly common among the people who have been displaced from the parts of Colombia brutalized by war and who have sought uncertain refuge here in the squalor of a shantytown named Nelson Mandela.
Ms. Barona left her village, Chicorodo, one morning in June to cut sugar cane, and when she returned she found her father and two brothers shot to death. Her 10-year-old daughter, Judith, was lying half-conscious under a mango tree, her skull crushed by a rifle butt.
So the 28-year-old Ms. Barona immediately packed up her things and headed here to Cartagena, with her bleeding daughter bundled in her arms. Judith died a few days later.
"I could never go back," she said, a tear tracing her cheek. "But at least I can calm down here. Now I'm looking for a good man to help me."
Nelson Mandela, where 45,000 people live under rusty corrugated roofs and sheets of plastic, may seem an unlikely place to seek calm. But it is growing every day with people like Ms. Barona, one of an estimated 150,000 Colombians driven from their homes this year alone as they have been squeezed between leftist guerrillas and paramilitaries loosely linked to local military units.
An estimated two million Colombians have been uprooted in recent years, according to the Consultancy for Human Rights and the Displaced, a research group, more than were sent fleeing by the war in Kosovo last year. Of all the countries of the world suffering from the miseries of war, only Sudan and Angola have more displaced people.
And now, with the United States poised to deliver a new $1.3 billion aid package, most of it for the military, ordinary Colombians and officials fear that the war will intensify and that the number of people displaced will increase.
Those being displaced are mostly simple rural people, though some are middle class, who want only to live and work in peace and do not care to choose a side in a war in which not choosing a side has become an impossible luxury.
More than half are the victims of the paramilitaries, who seek to drain towns of suspected guerrilla sympathizers but sometimes simply do the dirty work for large landowners who want to expand their holdings for cattle raising, coca growing or mining.
Those displaced bring few usable skills for surviving in the already overburdened cities to which they have flocked — places like Cartagena, Bogotá, Medellín and Cali. The urban squalor that is gathering in these cities breeds despair, family violence and crime, and the shantytowns increasingly serve as recruitment centers for guerrilla and paramilitary groups, flush with drug money to provide decent food and clothes to their fighters.
"You can't settle the war in Colombia without dealing with the problem of the displaced," said Jorge Rojas, the director of the consultancy. "It's central."
The displaced are part of an even larger phenomenon that includes some 800,000 Colombians who have fled the country of 40 million people over the last four years. Many have sheltered themselves across the borders with Panama and Venezuela, becoming international refugees and an increasing burden for Colombia's neighbors. Thousands more middle class and wealthy Colombians have fled the violence for life in the United States.
United States and Colombian officials acknowledge the problem of the displaced but say they must focus more effort on finding new homes, jobs and alternative crops for coca growers and other people who will see their livelihoods and homes affected by the fighting.
Of the $7.5 billion in the new "Plan Colombia" that was kicked off when President Clinton visited with President Andrés Pastrana in Cartagena recently, $500 million is allotted directly to helping the displaced and $1 billion for alternative crop development. But the primary aim of the plan is to reduce coca cultivation by 50 percent in five years and to extend the reach of the central government.
In Nelson Mandela, where displaced people have squatted on tiny plots of land without titles, few have running water and most steal their electricity from a public utility company that looks the other way.
Cartagena's mayor, Gina Benedetti de Vélez, said she needs $50 million a year to take care of the housing, education and health needs of the displaced population growing in shantytowns like Nelson Mandela, but that would be nearly one-third of her entire city budget. "We simply don't have the capacity to take care of these people," she said.
The first settlers who came here six years ago were apparently full of faith in the future. The mostly black and mulatto Colombians here named their new community after the South Africa leader out of black pride, and they named their streets Hope, Bethlehem and Victory.
But today there is misery everywhere in Nelson Mandela — barefoot children go to schools without notebooks, fathers plunge holes in industrial water pipes to give their families contaminated water, mothers poke through garbage to salvage refuse to sell. But what stands out most are the harrowing stories of brutality that forced these people to leave their homes in the first place.
One of those stories was that of Ms. Barona, whose family was killed and who is now alone but determined to go on. With wood donated by the Catholic Church, she is building a new shack for herself. She borrowed 50 cents from one of her new neighbors to start a business selling bags of fresh water, and now she is making a dollar a day.
"I can't tell you why they killed," he said, shrugging and swinging his legs nervously from the side of a makeshift table. "They killed our friends, our neighbors, and then the point came when we decided we couldn't take it anymore, and we just decided to leave."
"The people are stuck like pieces of cheese between slices of bread," said the Rev. Rafael Castillo, a priest who works in Nelson Mandela. "In this kind of irregular war, you are forced to define yourself on one side or the other, and the civilian population suffers atrocities from both sides."
Juan Llorente, a 50-year-old cattle rancher who once lived outside the town of Turbo, allowed an army patrol to sleep in his house for two nights last September. "I never thought I'd have a problem," he recalled, since it's a custom in Colombia to be hospitable."
The very next day after the army unit left, eight guerrillas of Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, came by the house and took away his 20-year-old son, Neilson José. A few days later, Neilson José was found along a road with three bullet holes in his head.
Mr. Llorente immediately left for Cartagena with his wife, four surviving children and five grandchildren. They were so scared, they left their 60 head of cattle behind, which Mr. Llorente said the guerrillas have since stolen.
"I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about where I am going to find food the next day," said Mr. Llorente, a man whose clothes and mannerisms reflect a middle- class background. "I was never a rich man, but I wasn't poor, either. But now, I am a hungry man."
Gradually, too, the war is bearing down on Nelson Mandela and other barrios full of the displaced. Father Castillo said that, of the 15 people killed in the community this year, six were taken from their homes in the middle of the night by unidentified men thought to be either guerrillas or paramilitaries.
Two months ago a local rebel unit kidnapped an engineer working to build two schools in Nelson Mandela and demanded $250,000 in ransom. "They knew we had donation money to help the displaced," Father Castillo said, and a settlement was eventually worked out for a $10,000 payment.
"We asked them: `Why are you destroying what you say you want to construct for the poor,' " he recalled. "A comandante answered, `I know we make mistakes, but you have to pay.' "
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company