with my husband and three children on a little piece of land
that my mother-in-law had left us. One afternoon we heard
shots and hid under our beds in fear. When it was all over,
we came out to see what had happened. We found our neighbour
and her son, my husband’s cousin, dead. We don’t
know who did it, but the next day we decided to flee. We lost
the little that we had, but we are very scared and we don’t
want to go back there.”
Carmen (not her real name) is just one of millions of Colombians
who have had to flee their land for fear of being killed or
persecuted by one or more of the armed groups involved in
the conflict. In most cases, they have had to abandon their
homes in a matter of hours, leaving behind their livestock
Born of the cold war era, Colombia’s conflict has pitted
a host of organized armed groups against one another and against
the Colombian government for more than 45 years. In recent
times, many of these armed groups have either turned themselves
in or simply dissolved, but others have survived or re-emerged.
In several regions of Colombia, armed hostilities persist
and show little sign of abating, offering little hope to the
thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire.
The impact on civilians
The consequences of Colombia’s conflict are dire.
Thousands of people have disappeared, and Colombia now has
one of the world’s largest internally displaced populations.
According to reliable sources, between 2 and 3 million people
have been displaced since 1985. In many cases, armed groups
have taken control of key strategic or resource-rich territories,
forcing the local population to leave. In other instances,
people flee their homes following threats or executions of
family members or because they fear their children will be
coerced into joining the armed groups. Or all too often the
intensity of the fighting leaves them with no choice but to
seek a safer haven elsewhere.
From the coastal regions of the Sierra Nevada to the north-eastern
plains of North Santander by way of the central and southern
states of Chocó, Antioquia, Cauca and Putumayo, people
have abandoned their homes and settled in run-down villages
or urban beltway dwellings. The transition from a rural to
an urban or semi-urban existence is both culturally and socio-economically
devastating for those concerned. The farming skills of most
displaced people provide little added value to urban modes
of employment. Indigenous and Afro-Colombians, who are disproportionately
affected by internal displacement, have strong ties to their
land and are particularly affected by being uprooted. To compound
their problems, they are often accused of collaborating with
the enemy and compelled to move from one place to another
before being able to settle more permanently.
Children and women are also particularly vulnerable to the
effects of displacement. More than half of all displaced civilians
are children. Often, the departamentos (states) are unable
to absorb the large numbers of displaced people that settle
on their territory, and children have to wait some time before
gaining access to medical services or enrolling in schools.
Moreover, many displaced families see their children as potential
sources of income and prefer them to work rather than go to
school. In many cases, these households are headed by single
mothers, who are faced with daily hardships and are vulnerable
to sexual violence.
To varying degrees, the Colombian government has stepped
up efforts to help people displaced by the conflict. Several
laws and decrees have been adopted favouring the implementation
of public policies that guarantee basic social and individual
rights for internally displaced people. A number of cities
have also set up orientation centres where public and private
institutions provide information and advice on the types of
services and assistance that are available to them and, in
some cases, such assistance is provided on-site. However,
since 2005, according to ICRC figures, the number of internally
displaced people has increased, and the government and humanitarian
organizations have not been able to respond to the overwhelming
needs of all of them.
A substantial response
In Colombia, the ICRC has been at the forefront of efforts
to provide emergency assistance, including food and household
items, to people displaced by the armed conflict. Over the
past ten years, the delegation has assisted more than 1 million
For the past ten years, the ICRC delegation in Colombia,
in collaboration with public entities and humanitarian organizations,
has adapted its assistance programmes according to evolving
needs, easing the transition from emergency assistance to
reconstruction and development. Manuel Duce, ICRC delegate
and relief specialist, insists that “given that very
few internally displaced people return to their homes, our
chief concern is that they become economically self-sufficient”.
The delegation works closely with Acción Social —
a public institution which, among other things, provides short-
and long-term aid to displaced people — and civil society
organizations, local governments and United Nations agencies.
In most cases, the ICRC provides assistance during the first
three months of displacement and up to six months for single-parent
households, while Acción Social and other public services
complement that assistance with more sustainable initiatives
in the areas of housing, education and health.
The ICRC has five sub-delegations and six offices in Colombia,
strategically located in areas worst affected by the armed
conflict. Despite this extensive deployment, the ICRC would
not be able to carry out all of its assistance activities
without its valuable partnership with the Colombian Red Cross
Society. In the towns and cities of Valledupar, Sincelejo,
Pereira, Villaviciencio and Bucaramanga, Colombian Red Cross
branches process individual cases of displaced people and
provide them with food and basic household items according
to their needs. When mass displacements occur, the ICRC works
hand-in-hand with Colombian Red Cross volunteers to assess
the needs on the ground prior to organizing transportation
and distribution of assistance.
In an effort to preserve the dignity of displaced people
and render direct food distribution more suited to the specific
needs of each individual, the ICRC has launched a pilot project
that allows beneficiaries to receive vouchers and exchange
them in designated markets for a list of essential food and
hygiene items. Such a system also benefits local markets and
contributes to the general welfare of communities. If all
goes well, the pilot project will be extended to other locations.
The task at hand remains a genuine challenge. The continuing
displacement of the civilian population still requires a steady
commitment to finding more creative, collaborative and effective
solutions for assistance to and protection of those affected.
Meanwhile, the ICRC will also seek preventive measures to
stem the flow of internal displacement by continuing its dialogue
with both state and non-state actors to ensure greater respect
for international humanitarian law.
Displaced children in Belalcazar, Caldas region of Colombia.
Partners for many years, the Colombian Red Cross and ICRC
respond daily to the needs of displaced people throughout