Friday, July 1, 2011

The Gomez's Story

The Gomez family, diplaced people. 
I met the Gomez family sitting on a sidewalk begging near the Centro Internacional. They said that two months ago guerrillas forced them to flee their farm on the shore of the Orinoco River near the Venezuelan border and eventually came to Bogotá seeking assistance.

Colombia has 5.2 million displaced people - a mind-boggling one out of every nine Colombians, according to CODHES, a human rights organization. The Colombian government and the United Nations say it's 'only' 3.6 million - still the world's largest number of displaced people. The figure is controversial, because Colombia's is a rolling displacement, in which many of those driven from their homes and farms eventually return home or resettle elsewhere. Many of the displaced end up in the cities, doing unskilled work like manual labor, street vending or renting cellphones.

This man gave the Gomezes some coins and asked them
why they had come to Bogotá instead of seeking
assistance from their regional government. Their
answer was not clear. 
Despite the millions suffering from displacement, I seem to see many fewer displaced people in Bogotá these days than a few years ago. Perhaps that's because the number of people being displaced has declined, perhaps they're being displaced in different regions, or maybe the government is trying to move them off of Bogotá's streets. About three years ago, several thousand displaced people camped for months on Plaza Bolívar and Parque Tercer Milenio, as a sort of protest.

The Gomez told me they had had their 16-hectare farm for about 17 years. They raised pigs and fished on the river - and also grew coca leaf, the base ingredient for cocaine. For most of that time right-wing paramilitaries controlled the region. While the paramilitaries have committed horrific human rights violations, the Gomezes said the 'paras' didn't bother them.

But during the Uribe administration the region's paramilitary group demobilized and a guerrilla group took over the region. The Guerrillas paid much less for coca leaf, the Gomezes said. The Gomezes said they refused to work with the guerrillas, who sent them a note ordering them to leave, and so they fled.

Throughout much of rural Colombia, campesinos feel trapped between the guerrillas and the paramilitaries.

"If the paramilitaries don't kill you, then the guerrillas will," Sr. Gomez said.

It's impossible to confirm the Gomezes' account. Some people are said to pretend to be displaced in order to get handouts. Other displaced people just give up, and become permanent displaced people.

But any family who sits on a sidewalk begging a few coins must be desperate.

The Gomezes said they'd obtained a little bit of money from the government's Accion Social agency and were hoping for more assistance. They might also be eligible for compensation under Colombia's new Victims Law - but that will take a long time, if it comes at all. And, might the Gomezes be partly culpable, because they cultivated coca leaf, which finances Colombia's illegal groups?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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