Afro-Colombians at a meeting with Witness for Peace in Bogota 2004 (photo by Loretta Nall)
Los Angeles Times, CA
PEREIRA, Colombia — Armando Garces was reluctant to leave his mountain village even after right-wing militia members had gone door to door telling residents they had 48 hours to evacuate, or else. He didn't like being ordered to abandon the only home he had ever known.
Then a daylong gun battle erupted between the paramilitary fighters and leftist guerrillas over control of nearby coca crops and transit routes. Garces' town, nestled in Colombia's Pacific coast rain forest, was caught in the crossfire between the rebels above the town and militia members below it.
"We hid under our beds all day, and the next morning we were gone," said Garces, recalling the terrifying day in June when his township, Bajo Calima, became a battleground in the nation's long-running drug wars. "Everyone agreed it was time to look for some other future."
So the 25-year-old woodcutter, his wife, two children and about 500 other residents joined the swelling ranks of Colombia's internally displaced. More than 3 million people have been driven from their homes by the civil conflict between armed groups vying for political dominance and the control of crops, especially those linked to the nation's drug trade.
Only Sudan has more internally displaced citizens than Colombia, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, a human rights group that has tracked the displaced around the globe for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Although Colombia has had a large displaced population for two decades, its size has increased quickly in recent months, experts say, and a disproportionate number of them are, like Garces, Afro-Colombians. They are targeted because they lack political clout and sophistication at a time when their rural homes have become economically attractive.