The abuses committed by Colombia’s outlaw armed groups have been in the news recently in the wake of Saturday’s killing by FARC guerrillas of three kidnapped police officers and one soldier, whom the guerrillas had held in the jungle for more than a decade.
But the displaced people’s stories are also terrible - yet much less visible. And Colombia has several million displaced people.
A 51-year-old woman [protesting on Bolivar Square] said that someone had given her family a piece of farmland in Tolima Department. Leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups roamed the area, fighting each other. The paramilitaries controlled her region, and required residents to pay them a monthly ‘protection fee,’ called a vacuna. In 2005, the woman said, paramilitaries showed up and ordered her family to leave within eight days. The woman believes that the person who she said gave them the land had hired the paramilitaries.
'We had to leave right away, because otherwise those people will kill you,’ she said.
Previously, the woman said, she’d panicked after learning that some paramilitaries had taken photos of her daughter, 13, in school. The woman sent the girl to live in Bogotá.
‘I sent her away overnight, because they were going to prostitute her,’ the woman said.
Many of the armed groups in Colombia’s long conflict have used violence against women as a weapon.
The woman also described a rein of terror by the paramilitaries. When people broke the paramilitaries’ ‘laws’, she said, the so-called ‘paras’ would drag them through the streets and then rub salt into their wounds. They murdered others: ‘They forced them to dig a hole in the jungle, and that was their grave,’ she recalled.
Another woman, from Los Llanos, said she fled to Bogotá four years ago with her husband and three children after guerrillas threatened them. She said that her family had refused to collaborate with the guerrillas by spying for them on local military patrols.
They believed they’d find safety in Bogotá. But here in the capital the woman’s husband was murdered - by guerrillas, she believes.
‘We were the guerrillas’ military objective,’ she says.
A woman showed me a photo of her husband, who she said was kidnapped a dozen years ago by guerrillas from their town outside of Medellin. The guerrillas demanded an impossibly large ransom, she said. Initially, she learned that her husband was alive from another kidnappee who had been chained to him. But since then she has heard nothing more, and doesn't know whether he's still alive.
A man from the Sierra Nevada Mountains near La Guajira said that late one night 11 years ago members of Colombia’s smaller guerrilla group, the ELN, came to his village, killing, stealing and driving the people out.
‘It was because we didn't pay them a tax,’ he said. ‘They came at midnight and ordered us out. I lost my farm, my cattle and everything else. And they killed my brother.’
He once tried to return to the land, he said, but fled because the guerrillas would have killed him.
Now, he believes, the guerrillas are growing drug crops on the community’s land.”