Built with Berta

  1. Internal displacement in Colombia has caused the abandonment of an estimated 5.5 million hectares of land and upwards of 4.5 million internally displaced people. Perhaps one reason we do not see or hear as much about this very pressing and ongoing issue in the global media is because there are no refugee camps set up currently as in Syria or the Sudan, or because outright combat, which saw a pronounced period of forced displacement between 1999-2006, has more or less ceased between various periods of demobilization. More than 65 years after the armed conflict began in Colombia, campesinos, women and children, indigenous communities, and Afro-Colombians, continue to suffer more than any other demographic in their efforts to seek socio-economic footing after being displaced from their homes.

    In 2011, newly elected President Juan Manuel Santos signed into law the Victims and Land Restitution Law (“Ley de Víctimas y Restitución de Tierras, Law 1448”), which covers a range of interrelated issues, and, as per Amnesty International, “includes some welcome steps forward,” including the acknowledgement of the existence of an armed conflict - which was previously ignored by the Colombian government, and aims to protect the part of the population who was affected directly by this armed conflict by defining terms regarding “comprehensive reparations for some survivors of human rights abuses committed in the context of the armed conflict and contains measures allowing the return to the rightful owners of millions of hectares of stolen land.” Although it is an ambitious set of laws, there are inherent challenges, such as attempting to enforce these laws while the armed conflict continues to take place, and as such, continuously presents moving issues as Colombia is not yet a 100% post-war environment.

    Montes de Maria, located in the center of the department of Bolívar and Sucre, is home to an agrarian population that suffered gravely at the hands of three main armed groups active in the armed conflict: the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the guerilla faction), paramilitary groups (right wing auto-defenses set in place partially to ‘combat’ the FARC, such as the AUC), and the uniformed state and government army (El Ejército). In recent years, demobilized paramilitary groups have regenerated into differently named but similarly ‘themed’ groups called Los Bacrim (short for Bandas Criminales), who exercise a familiar power over weaponless civilians.

    El Carmen de Bolívar is one of the most influential towns in the department of Bolívar, because of its size and location, and is home to the Oficína de Víctimas (Office of Victims) where people from all over los Montes de Maria come to check in on the status of their situation as displaced victims - but first they must register. One snag in the system is that not everyone who registers 'qualifies,' because perhaps they were already listed on their mother or father's registration card when they were minors. Now grown up, however, they have trouble seeking resources as an adult. This is one snag in the system dealing with a war 'in progress.' People at the office come to check in on a number of things that range from registering a child for school, to declaring a family member or oneself as a victim of displacement, to checking up on the status of humanitarian aid checks, to inquiring about housing (viviendas) - which many families have sought out to do, after losing the only home/finca they had known in the conflict.

    The following are portraits of some of the people I met at the Oficina de Víctimas in El Carmen de Bolívar. I set up shop in the back patio of the office during weekday mornings and would head out to the waiting room and engage in conversation with people who would allow me an introduction. On Monday mornings an average of 300 people show up at the office; the line is out the door. There is no air-conditioning and a staff of 3-4 on any given day. Often, the system gets jammed or the computers freeze and those waiting are told to come back tomorrow, which seems easy enough but is not for many of these people for whom traveling to and from a distant corregimiento (pueblo, town) one hour by moto-taxi is expensive. In the office there is the sense that the government is overwhelmed, as if it wasn’t expecting the 4+ million internally displaced to answer its calls for reparations. The task at hand is overwhelming indeed, and the armed conflict is still ongoing.



  2. Displaced from her finca La Sierrita in Sierra Donado in 1997, Miriam registered as a victim of forced displacement in 2000, and has since received two humanitarian aid payments. She’s currently waiting to hear the status of her request for housing (“la vivienda”), again. She has 12 children between the ages of 10 and 34 and works at home, while her husband works odd jobs around El Carmen.

  3. Berlis, 16, studies at the SENA (technical college) in El Carmen de Bolívar. Her mother, Rosa Maria Vegaschico, 58, was born in Floralito, but was displaced in 2000 by paramilitaries. She has received humanitarian aid but no housing ("vivienda"), although she has requested it and done the necessary paperwork.

  4. Enalba, 59, one of 12 brothers and sisters, lives in a hand-made home of mud, plastic, and wood, on the side of a hill off the highway in barrio Nariño, in El Carmen. She cooks outside over wood and fire, sells street food from dawn until about 10 am, and then begins cooking lunch and dinner for neighbors to patch together an income. Her two sons and her then husband arrived in El Carmen roughly 35 years ago, when they were displaced from both La Piedra and Respaldo. Down the road, in another part of Nariño, is a small church and school run by a Swiss nun, where Enalba learned to read about 4 years ago.

  5. Evelyn, 50, was displaced in 2001 to El Carmen. Though humanitarian aid should arrive every 3 months, she has not received any assistance since mid 2014. She is raising 5 children on her own, and does not have outside income.

  6. Adriana Valdez, 20, was displaced from San Isidro in 2000 because of the FARC. She lives in El Carmen and was at the office seeking assistance enrolling in coursework at SENA, a technical school.