In a peaceful Colombia, violence continues to displace populations

The transition to a stable and just situation will take time. At the moment, it is difficult to generate confidence in some people who are too used to being victims. Español

24 March 2017
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A soldier stands guard in front of the displaced community, as a helicopter arrives in Pie de Pató, Colombia. Foto: Mauricio Morales/¡Pacifista!

This article has been published as part of the partnership between ¡PACIFISTA! and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original article here.

He says, four times.

Then he thinks again and says no, five times.

Don Pedro doesn’t remember too well how many times the war has forced him to leave his home in Peña Azul in the country’s Choco region - a small village on the banks of the River Baudó, and surrounded by jungle. But every time it has happened, he has been wrapped in rain and stuck to the mud.

Like everyone here, he speaks to me very quietly, and he doesn’t say much, but he manages to tell me what happened in his town on 3 March this year, an incident that from one day to the next forced 527 people to leave the area like a stampede of animals.

For many decades, the story of the war in Colombia has, unfortunately, been a story with many different and varying accounts. This is certainly true in the case of Peña Azul and its surrounding communities, as its inhabitants remember the events that unfolded only 12 days ago.

What happened – explained a displaced villager I spoke with – was that the paramilitaries arrived with their rifles, marked with their armbands, announcing in loud voices that they were coming to stay. Some displaced villagers had a different story: before the paramilitaries arrived, some strangers had come and murdered a man, and dragged him through the yellow dirt of one of the town’s tracks.

I was immediately struck by the number of women, children and elderly. 

But another explained that the true catalyst was a conflict with the ELN. Between the Friday afternoon of 3 March and the night of Saturday, the war forced 527 out of their ranches, of which 256 were minors. The so-called Gaintanista Self-Defence Group came out, according to an intelligence report quoted by Colombia’s El Tiempo, commanded by a man nicknamed ‘Fury’, who has linked with the Clan Úsaga and exchanged fire with the ELN.

But, I emphasise, the war broke out.

This is a large displacement of people, in 2017, in a Colombia at peace.


Members of Mésicos Sin Fronteras (MSF) speak with the displaced community to treat the psychological impact of the violence. Photo by Mauricio Morales/¡PACIFISTA! All rights reserved.

A week later, on Friday 10 March, I travelled by plane, bus and boat to spend 5 days with the victims of Peña Azul’s displacement. I arrived in Pie de Pató, the municipal centre of the Alto Baudó district, and soon found the temporary shelter where the newly displaced were staying: a sports centre, one of the few concrete buildings in the town.

I was immediately struck by the number of women, children and elderly. The women cooked and mopped the floor in a vain effort to keep body and mind occupied. From time to time, men came in with muddy feet.

A Black Hawk helicopter flew overhead for several minutes before landing, the children running towards it without waiting for the propellers to stop. It brought a pair of Generals to speak to the community. The two men shared coconuts and pineapples, and told the people that were there to take care of them and promised military operations and marine patrols on the river. But this care, they said, could not be guaranteed if they couldn’t count on the community's cooperation.


Two generals from the armed forces arrive in Pie de Pató, Colombia. Photo by Mauricio Morales/¡Pacifista! All rights reserved.

Then came the turn of the community. And their representatives followed the old and well-known story: abandonment and the lack of opportunities in the region. At one point, the mayor of the municipality confronted one of the generals and said, “Here we have to grow coca because there is nothing else to earn a living from. You know that!” The general looked at the woman in a reserved manner. The mayor continued: “There is no way to market other products here. The coca brought economic benefits to the peasants here, and it’s also brought violence.”

At that moment, a voice interrupted to add to the mayor´s claims, “You not only fumigated the coca, but also the crops for bread”, referring to the government’s attempt to kill coca crops from the air with spray.

Cuando the meeting ended the people left, first in silence, and then looking around and laughing, until some dared to say, “The same old promises”. The night passed, some in the sports centre and others in the homes of relatives living in Pie de Pató. Others preferred to wander around the village.

A boy approaches a soldier and grabs his hair. “Are you Rambo?” Then he runs away?

During the days that I spent in Pie de Pató, there was not a lack of food, neither medical or psychological attention. But this just made me feel more that I was in a tough conflict zone. The Medicos Sin Fronteras (MSF), the Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the local authority looking after the displaced population were everywhere. People were nervous, but not in the way I had expected to find them. It pains me to say, but I felt that they were somehow accustomed to being victims.

They seemed to know the script by heart: soon, the journalists would leave, then the doctors, and later the aid. Then the army would also go, after a fortnight or more, a maximum of a month. And then, finally, everything would go back to being the same.

But I did feel that they were anxious to go back to their ranches and get on with their lives. Their problems are many, they told me, and the armed conflict is only one of them. There is also poverty, and neglect. And, of course why not, the concerns of a peasant farmer: their land and their animals.


A family look for a place to stay after being displaced from their village. Photo by Mauricio Morales/¡Pacifista! All rights reserved.“I was in the forest working when I saw everyone preparing to leave. I had to leave my hens there, abandoned”, says Doña Liz Esther. Like Don Pedro, she doesn’t remember if this is the fourth or fifth time that she’s had to flee her home. This time she doesn´t want to wait too long to go back, and she doesn’t want to move to the city because “who will take care of the ranch and the animals?”

A group of indigenous women share the kitchen. The ‘negros’ and the ‘cholos’ – they call one another – must work together. If they could leave, each would take a different path, but the war that brought them here and their work in the forest brings them together these days. They are sitting at a table eating rice and tuna, the same as yesterday. They say they feel lucky that there isn’t a shortage of food, and that there are no major health problems. But they suggest that perhaps it is because they have only spent a few days in the shelters.

“I have the right to be happy. These problems are not my fault, they are society’s…” Some children sing and repeat what the psychologist of the medical mission of the Governor of Chocó is telling them. Others run to join the choir, but maybe they don’t understand what they’re singing. A number of them are sons and daughters of parents who have been through this process of displacement before.

Now it’s their children’s’ turn.


A psychiatrist from Misión Médica de Chocó entertains the displaced children with an activity in Pie de Pató. Photo by Mauricio Morales/¡Pacifista! All rights reserved.

Travelling along the Baudó River, it is not difficult to see the disaster left by this displacement in their communities: the emptiness is almost deafening, the houses shut up, animals running loose and the feeling that this is a country indifferent to these bouts of intense violence.

A boy approaches a soldier and grabs his hair. “Are you Rambo?” Then he runs away? The soldier gives him an intense look. They army members stationed at Pie de Pató are not very intimate with the local population. They patrol the forest with stern faces, their glances come and go, but there is not invitation to interact. It must be the effects of years of war, and the knowledge that in these area, everything is very convoluted: the paramilitaries, guerrillas, drug traffickers, the poor and the under-represented State.

Bit by bit, the displaced have begun to return home. Some do not have the patience to wait until the security guarantees of the Army and police forces are in place. The elder members of the group do not have time to wait. Others, however, have decided to stay in Pie de Pató. The crisis will filter out, and soon life will become an uncertainty, an uncertainty known only too well by those from these parts of the country, who seem to belong to another country, or perhaps even another world.

* Morales es un fotógrafo bogotano. Instagram: @mauriciomorales0

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