Peace and a piece of land

Colombians by the hundreds of thousands have fled the terror of the countryside only to find themselves stranded in squalor

This town on the Magdalena River was deserted in March 2000 after armed gunmen executed six men and ordered the rest of the inhabitants to leave. As of July, five families had returned.  

IN THE MIDDLE MAGDALENA, Colombia (CNN) -- Along the banks of Colombia's principal waterway, the Magdalena River, a once-abandoned village is trying to chase away its ghosts.

Five of the 50 families who used to live here have returned to rebuild their lives. [For the safety of its residents, the village shall not be identified.] Cleaning out their dusty weed-covered homes, they hope to sweep away a sense of terror that has haunted their tiny town since March, when a death squad brought Colombia's war to their doorsteps.

Late one night armed men wearing camouflage uniforms and armbands bearing a paramilitary group's insignia stormed into the village, roused the residents from bed and ordered everyone into the main square.

One survivor, who asked to be called Mario, said the soldiers herded him and most of the town's male residents into a drainage trench.

"They didn't say why. They [only] said they were going to kill me," said Mario. "I asked them, 'Why?' I said, 'I don't owe anything to anyone and I don't work with any armed group' .... They just said, 'Go over there,' and they threw me face down and tied me to another man."

The leader of the death squad made a call on a cell phone, then pulled out a revolver. He killed six men with a shot each to the head. For some reason -- Mario does not know why -- the paramilitaries spared him.

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The sister of two of the dead men said she and her family remained inside their home during the killings, but heard the gunshots.

"I heard my mother screaming," said the woman, who used the alias Maria. "I had no idea what had happened. Then, when we brought my mother to the room, I looked over and saw [the victims] lying there on the ground."

Accusing the villagers of siding with leftist guerrillas, the gunmen ordered the entire village to leave.

The townspeople did not resist. They fled to a neighboring town, seeking shelter with relatives and friends or in refugee camps. Suddenly displaced, they joined the ranks of hundreds of thousands of other Colombians forced from their homes by war.

According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement, a private monitoring group, some 288,000 Colombians were evicted by armed groups in 1999, nearly half of them by paramilitary squads. Guerrillas were blamed for 28 percent of the cases, and unknown groups were responsible for 16 percent.

Most of those displaced by violence suffer in squalid camps or shantytowns outside major cities. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that Colombia's displaced people often lack adequate shelter, sanitation and nutrition.

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Refugees map

Cash-strapped local and national government agencies have done little to improve conditions, fueling resentment and frustration among the homeless masses. Determined to take matters into their own hands, many groups of displaced people have seized unoccupied land and begun building independent towns, often siphoning the cities' electricity and water to supply their neighborhoods.

These "invasiónes" have added new suburbs to the already sprawling cities of Bogota, Medellin and Cali. In the coastal city of Cartagena an estimated 40,000 people -- most of them displaced -- live in a new barrio they built from the ground up.

They named their neighborhood "Nelson Mandela."

'Nowhere else to go'

Forced to flee their hometowns to escape the various fighting factions, scores of families set up tents at the western edge of "Nelson Mandela," a new barrio in Cartagena named for the South African civil rights leader  

Surrounded by high-tension power lines, industrial plants and a natural gas pipeline, Nelson Mandela is a risky place to live. It is a ramshackle pile of wood huts patched together by improvised power cables, separated by rivers of mud. Warning signs posted on rickety fences and kiosks point the way to evacuation in case of a gas leak.

The residents of this township -- named in honor of the South African anti-apartheid hero -- effectively manage themselves, without the aid of police or city hall.

"There is no help here," said Edwin Niño. "The [non-governmental organizations] are the ones who really worked for us, but the government has done nothing; neither has the local district. This is the way we live in Nelson Mandela."

Niño is determined to make Nelson Mandela a more livable place. As a member of the barrio's housing authority, he must ensure that residents receive power and running water. Twenty sectors of the barrio now have utilities, but the remaining four are far behind schedule. Niño is also working to get the swampy streets filled with rocks from the nearby seashore.

These problems pale, however, compared to Niño's newest responsibility: finding a way to incorporate yet another invasión into the township.

At sunset the evening of June 24, the western edge of Nelson Mandela was nothing but grass and small trees. By morning, it was a camp for hundreds. Through the night the new tenants had hacked down trees and cut away weeds, replacing them with crude tent frames.

In the following weeks more residents arrived. More tents arose on the field. Then small tiendas, or shops, materialized, selling drinks and snacks.

The area is now a portrait of overwhelming poverty. Children suffering from diarrhea crawl naked across the dirt tracks. Others amuse themselves by tying string to pieces of paper, then casting their contraptions into the wind as makeshift kites.

Families in search of food dig holes into the earth to flush out crabs that lie burrowed below. Every evening the community shovels its human waste into a heap and sets it afire, spewing fetid fumes for miles.

For all its hardships, the camp is the only home they can find.

After men showed up claiming to be the landowners, police told the squatters on the edge of "Nelson Mandela" they would remove them by force if they did not leave voluntarily  

"We have nowhere else to go," said one man.

Julio Landero, who was staying with a sister-in-law in a village outside Cartagena, heard rumors a group of displaced people were building a new township on the edge of Nelson Mandela. He brought his pregnant wife and their son to the camp, chose a 7-by-14-meter plot of land, and called it home.

Landero used to live in El Salado, a town 70 kilometers southeast of Cartagena, in a region ravaged by fighting between paramilitaries and the country's largest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

"You never knew when you went to bed at night if you would still be alive the next morning," he said of his hometown.

In February hundreds of paramilitary fighters swept into El Salado and began a three-day killing spree that left 36 people dead in the town and 18 dead in the countryside. Another 17 are missing and presumed dead.

Fortunately for Landero, he was out of town the weekend of the massacre. When he learned of it, he collected his family and fled for his relatives' house near the coast.

His tent in this field outside of Cartagena is not comfortable, and finding work is hard. Every day he must rebusque ("glean") in neighboring farms and communities for work. With his wife about to give birth, he desperately needs 10,000 pesos (U.S. $4.50) -- a high sum for the unemployed of Nelson Mandela -- to pay doctors to give her a cesarean section.

Yet despite his troubles, Landero would rather live here than live in fear in El Salado.

"We want to live in peace," said. "[At least] we know each other here."

The police, however, have threatened to evict them from their land. Shortly after the displaced people moved in, men claiming to be the property owners approached them and ordered them to leave. When the squatters asked the men to show their title of ownership, the men left in disgust. The police came next, saying that if the squatters did not leave voluntarily, they would be removed by force.

The displaced residents of Nelson Mandela say they will not fight the police, but they will not leave, either. They plan to offer "peaceful" resistance: forming barricades of flag-bearing children, or setting fire to tires to block the police from entering.

"We already ran from violence," said another resident, who did not give his name. "We are tired of violence. All we want is peace and a piece of land."

Afraid, but back home

After being evicted from their town by a paramilitary group in March 2000, these women were among five families who dared to return to their homes on the Magdalena River in July  

Three months after Mario, Maria and the other villagers fled their hamlet on the banks of the Magdalena River following a paramilitary attack, a handful of families decided to go back. Like the squatters outside Cartagena, they found themselves languishing in poor conditions, with little or no help from outside.

Fed up with being refugees, they defied the paramilitaries and returned to their homes.

"What else could we do?" asked Mario. "We don't have money, we don't have a job in that place, and I have six children."

Other families have started drifting back, too, one at a time. So far, the paramilitaries have not bothered them.

Asked if she was worried the paramilitaries might return, Maria said: "Yes, I'm afraid ... only God knows what destiny has for us. But here we have work.... Here we can always find food."

Come back to this section of our Colombia site for future reports by Steve Nettleton.

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