Colombia's displaced trickle home to face new challenges

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 30 December 2009 10:56 GMT

BAJO GRANDE, Colombia (AlertNet) - With the menacing rebels gone, the landmines cleared and the Colombian army again patrolling this remote farming village in northern Colombia, a trickle of families who fled fighting nearly ten years ago have begun to return to their homes.

Until a few months ago, Bajo Grande, a village nestled amid bushy and green hills in a region known as Maria Mounts, lay abandoned for almost a decade following an attack by the FARC, ColombiaÂ?s largest left-wing guerrilla group.

The rebel attack left four villagers dead and drove 126 families from their homes. They fled within hours snatching what possessions they could.

Since the 1990s, the region surrounding Bajo Grande has been a focal point of violence in ColombiaÂ?s conflict, where rebels and right-wing paramilitaries vie for control of this strategic corridor and drug smuggling route that reaches the Caribbean sea.

But three years ago, an offensive by government troops pushed back the rebels and gave the army control of the region, paving the way for 40 or so families to head back to Bajo Grande in recent months.

Those who have returned to rebuild lives have found uncertainty and ruin. The chickens and cattle have long since disappeared. Most of the plundered houses and their scorched facades are uninhabitable. Farming land has been overtaken by tall weeds. The local school remains shut.

Still, life here is slowly returning back to normal. Last month, at the village church marked with bullet holes, Sunday mass was held for the first time in nearly a decade.

Dried tobacco leaves hang in the abode houses of the few who have gone back home. The men have returned first, hoping their families will follow soon once the harvests become regular.

A handful of landmines and improvised explosive devices, planted by the rebels, have been cleared during a recent year-long demining operation carried out by the Colombian military, costing $700,000.

Locals can now tend to their crops again without fear of getting their hands and feet blown off.

Â?With the landmines cleared, people are slowly returning and are not afraid to grow maize and tobacco,Â? said Aide Castellar, a local health worker.

But the lack of basic services, such as water and electricity, little infrastructure, and few jobs means the task of rebuilding communities is an arduous process for both those returning and the government.

Â?DonÂ?t get me wrong, IÂ?m very glad to be back,Â? said local resident Oscar Berreto, Â?but thereÂ?s no work here and getting water is a big problem.Â?

Â?Our homes were burnt and destroyed. If the houses were restored, more people would come back quickly,Â? Berreto added.

LAND RIGHTS

ColombiaÂ?s long-standing problem of unequal land distribution and disputed land rights compounds the difficulties in resettling displaced families and deters them to return.

Most Bajo Grande residents are not landowners. Sorting out land rights and providing farmers with agricultural land is a government priority. The government is buying up land and redistributing it to the villagers who have formed farming cooperatives.

The first 200 hectares of land for tobacco growing has already been bought, says the government, and a deal is being worked out with tobacco giant Philip Morris, to buy the crop from local farmers to kick start the local economy.

To help farmers transport their produce, the government, with the help of Japanese aid, has allocated funds to pave 28km of road connecting Bajo Grande village with the nearest town, a five-hour walk away.

The government has also promised water and electricity supplies for residents and says a local teacher will be appointed after most displaced children have returned.

Â?The hardest part is social and economic reconstruction,Â? said Juan Francisco Santos, ColombiaÂ?s vice-president, as he addressed villagers during a recent visit to Bajo Grande. Â?Please be patient with us. This will take time. ItÂ?s a long process and itÂ?s not going to happen overnight.Â?

FEW RETURNING HOME

But the resettlement of displaced families in Colombia is the exception rather than the norm. Those returning home are few and resettlement is sporadic.

Across Colombia, roughly 30,000 people of ColombiaÂ?s estimated 3.5 million displaced population have returned home with government help in the last eight years.

The lack of security and fragile government control in some remote areas, combined with the problem of landmines, means resettling ColombiaÂ?s displaced population is plagued with difficulties.

It also means some displaced families are wary of going home, with some preferring to stay in the shanty areas surrounding ColombiaÂ?s big cities where millions they have sought refuge.

However, the resettlement of families in Bajo Grande, who have put their faith in the government to help them rebuild their lives, marks a milestone that Colombian authorities hope to repeat across the country.

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