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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 July, 2004, 12:39 GMT 13:39 UK
Colombia's ghost towns

By Elliott Gotkine
BBC, Bogota

According to the UN, there are up to three million internally displaced people in Colombia, making it the worst humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere. Elliott Gotkine reports.

La Union Peneya
The Christmas decorations are still strung across the deserted streets
La Union Peneya used to be like any other isolated settlement in rural Colombia. Rows of grey shacks with corrugated-iron roofs line the muddy-brown paths which criss-cross the village. It is surrounded by a seemingly infinite expanse of rolling green fields.

But all that changed on 4 January this year, when it became Colombia's latest ghost town.

The people who lived here were driven out of their homes by the left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and forced to find refuge in the surrounding villages and towns.

In doing so, the Farc ensured that the approaching Colombian army would be unable to count on the support of the local population once it took control. It is a common tactic in Colombia's internal conflict.

But not everyone joined the exodus.

Eerie place

The youngest is three-year-old Stefania, a sweet, smiling child with big, brown eyes and a much-abused plastic doll as her only friend.

Her mother - who died two years ago - raised Stefania alone, which is why she is cared for by her 80-year old grandmother, Ana Francisca, and her great-grandmother, Paula Diaz, aged 102. They have lived here for the best part of 50 years.

Stefania with her great-grandmother
Stefania and her elderly relatives are among the few villagers left
"In the middle of the night, one Sunday, everyone left," recalled Paula Diaz. "No-one told us anything."

I asked them why they did not just hitch a ride on the army helicopter which regularly drops supplies and troops into the village.

"The truth is we don't have anywhere to go," Grandma Ana Francisca told me. "If we had a property somewhere else, we'd have already gone there. But how we can leave this place, which is ours, to go somewhere where we'll have nobody who can pay the rent for us? We're resigned to dying here."

The village itself is an eerie place. Bakeries still have bread on the shelves; brightly-coloured children's bicycles lie abandoned by the roadside; and blue, pink and yellow Christmas decorations brighten up its now deserted streets.

A world away, in the capital, Bogota, Colombia's palatial Constitutional Court recently ruled that the government was failing in its obligations towards the country's internally displaced people.

If the military picture looks hopeful, the humanitarian situation continues to cause concern
But Luis Alfonso Hoyos, head of the government's Solidarity Network, dismisses such criticism. "The government will only be satisfied once the problem is completely resolved," he said. "There's still a lot to be done. But progress has been made.

"All homes and almost all villages that were destroyed have been rebuilt. Displacement has been reduced by 53%. And we've seen an important number of returnees; close to 70,000 people have returned and begun to receive help from various networks."

Grave situation

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees concedes that the rate of displacement has fallen.

This is partly because the army has been moving in to former rebel strongholds, but also because some of Colombia's armed factions now have an active policy of preventing would-be refugees from leaving their homes.

Farc rebels
Left-wing guerrillas have been fighting the state for 40 years
But the commissioner warns that every day up to 500 people join the growing ranks of Colombia's internally displaced. The situation is so grave, the UN says, that only Sudan and Congo are blighted by worse humanitarian crises.

"I would say the situation is getting worse," Fabio Varoli, deputy head of the UNHCR's mission in Colombia, told the BBC.

"Last year there were 150,000 new displaced persons and now the total is more than three million according to NGOs, and two million according to the government."

Many of those forced out of villages like La Union Peneya are too frightened to return to their homes in case the Farc comes back.

Yet for the government, La Union Peneya is further evidence that it is making ground in its stated strategy of recapturing rebel-held territory.

But if the military picture looks hopeful, the humanitarian situation continues to cause concern.

Human rights groups reckon that even if the army were to completely vanquish the Farc, and end the violence that has plagued Colombia for some 40 years, it would take at least 15 years for the problem of internal displacement to subside.

Colombia's ghosts, it seems, will not be laid to rest for some time yet.

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Country profile: Colombia
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