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Colombia's Five Million Internal Refugees Lost In Criminal No-Man's Land

Colombia is a paradox, with rising economic growth concentrated in urban areas and apparent progress in fighting both leftist guerillas and drug cartels. But there's a dirty little secret that won't go away: more internally displaced peo

An anti-FARC rally in Medellin in 2008 (medea material)
An anti-FARC rally in Medellin in 2008 (medea material)
Pierre Hazan

MONTERIA - Two fans are blasting away in the offices of the Corsoc social development association. The heat is moist, and our clothes are steeped in humidity. We are in Monteria, in the State of Cordoba, 90 minutes away by plane from the Colombian capital Bogota. It is a world away.

In this world, conventional justice has no place and the State institutions barely function. It is also a place where the earth is ripe with riches - gold, nickel, oil, coal and, of course, coca.

But these resources are hoarded by the strongest: those who speak with weapons. This is the kingdom of drug traffickers and other "Bacrim," the name given to criminal groups here. They are often demobilized paramilitaries who quickly switch over to drug trafficking, in addition to the Marxist FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) guerillas.

It's been two years since the representatives of internal refugees - driven from their lands by one of these armed groups - last met in this office. It's too visible, and therefore too dangerous. Their predecessors were assassinated. But today some of them insisted on this meeting with three passing Swiss diplomats to try to alert the world to their plight.

Mô Bleeker is one of these diplomats. She is the special envoy from the Swiss Federal Foreign Affairs Department (DFAE) in charge of a special task force for the "treatment of the past and atrocity prevention." She and the others have come to see for themselves the situation and to evaluate how Switzerland might continue to help broker a negotiated solution. This is a key moment: on June 29 2011, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos passed a law for the "victims and the return of land."

A conflict focused on land

In Colombia, which has never had any agrarian reform, land is at the heart of the conflict. By compensating for or returning 3 to 6.5 million hectares of land stolen by armed groups to millions of displaced peasants, the government in Bogota is trying to cut the grass under the FARC's feet and to launch a political process that could lead to peace. The difficulties and risks are enormous: can the authorities protect those who are claiming their lands? Won't the law be subverted to legalize stolen land?

On that day in Monteria, the overview that the dozen leaders of displaced populations give to the Swiss diplomats is gloomy. "The armed groups don't hesitate to kill us to take our lands. Pressing charges only increases the danger. Here, most judges and policemen are terrorized, when they're not in cahoots with the "Bacrim," says Josué, the chieftain of the indigenous Suni people (his name was modified). "The government in Bogota doesn't hear us. It will listen to you: tell them about our plight. The State has to intervene. We will not move any more: we live here or we die here."

The other leaders tell similar stories about a population stuck in the crossfire of armed groups that battle each other to control resources, when they are not collaborating to split the profitable drug market. The leaders say the UN, Switzerland and other governments have to take them out of their dangerous isolation.

Far from Bogota's interests and the capital's media attention, these populations are paying a heavy price: Colombia holds the sad record for the largest number of internal refugees in the world. Since 1985, over 5 million people were forced to flee their homes, if which 80% are women and children.

His finger on the map, another leader gives a quick overview of the situation: "Here, in the south of Cordoba State, drug traffickers are growing 4,000 hectares of coca. Here, you can see the roads that lead to the Atlantic coast where the drugs are exported. Here, the little green triangles represent "Bacrim" base camps, and farther away, the guerilla, but it is relatively weak here."

This is the paradox of Colombia: on the one hand, there are entire regions without any rule of law inhabited by half of the population. And, on the other hand, a 6% economic growth rate that attracts multinational companies, skilled workers, functioning institutions in urban centers and a large market for exported goods.

Writing history in the present

In this country torn by war for 60 years and 20 times the size of Switzerland, what can Swiss diplomacy do? Because of its good relations with the Colombian government and its links with civil society, the government in Bogota asked for help setting up instruments for transitional justice in 2007. In 2010, Swiss diplomacy presided over the G-24 in Bogota, an institution that determines the general orientations of institutional backers and that is devoted to peace in Colombia. It now leads a G-24 sub-group on human rights.

But one of the DFAE's niche expertise areas is the "treatment of the past." It actively supports the Colombian Historical Memory Group (GMH) and presides its International Consulting Council. The GMH's mandate is to write the history of crimes during a conflict that is still on going. The ambition is to create a favorable environment for negotiations. History is thus written not after the establishment of peace, but before, to facilitate it.

This Swiss contribution is in line with its soft power: traditional pragmatism combined with a strong expertise in specific domains, and without the interests and resources of a great power.

In its 11 reports, the GMH has denounced those responsible for massacres and other serious human rights violations: security forces, paramilitaries, guerillas, drug traffickers and "Bacrim." In its first report, the GMH singled out the army and the police for actively collaborating with paramilitaries and the Cali cartel in the Trujillo massacre, where 300 civilians were assassinated in the 1990s.

It's a way for the GMH to show its independence, to remind security forces that they are accountable for their acts and to show those who feel excluded that armed struggle isn't the only path for change. Gonzalo Sanchez, president of the GMH, says: "Memory is an instrument for the transformation of victims into citizens. It is a way to support their rights."

The political equation in Colombia is still complicated. Between the FARC guerilla and a very powerful ultra-right, challenges are enormous. But at the very least, the political climate now seems auspicious for progress: the Santos government recognized the existence of an internal armed conflict, something its predecessor had always refused to do.

The era of former president Alvaro Uribe is over. He had accused Genevan professor Jean-Pierre Gontard - who was trying to help free FARC hostages - of "managing terrorist organization funds." These were baseless accusations, and, today it is the administration Uribe that is the target of a complaint for crimes against humanity because of its alleged links with the paramilitaries. American authorities have accused Uribe's chief of security, General Mauricio Santoyo Velasco, of complicity with paramilitary leaders and of cocaine trafficking with the infamous Medellin cartel.

Read more from Le Temps in French.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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