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More than 6 million Colombians are victims of war-official

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 11 Feb 2014 12:36 PM
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Colombians demonstrate in Bogota in support of citizens displaced during armed conflicts and demand they get back their land. Picture March 6, 2012, REUTERS/John Vizcaino
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BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than six million Colombians – more than one eighth of the population – have been registered as victims of the internal conflicts of the past 30 years, the latest government figures show.

The victims are the result of fighting going back to the 1960s between state security forces, drug-running rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and right-wing paramilitaries initially created to fight leftist rebels but later heavily involved in the cocaine trade.

In 2011, the government passed a historic law, the Victims’ Law, that offers up to $12,000 to surviving victims of the violence inflicted by all sides in the past three decades and allows displaced families to reclaim land seized or forcibly bought from them by illegal armed groups.

Colombians affected by the violence since 1985 can apply to be put on the official victims’ register and government officials have 60 days to decide whether a claimant merits inclusion.

The law is seen as the centrepiece of government efforts to heal the wounds of war and lay the groundwork for peace as the government and top FARC commanders hold peace talks in Havana in a bid to end the war.

The latest government figures show that nearly 90 percent of the 6,073,453 people on the register were driven from their homes, sometimes at gunpoint, by fighting between warring factions. Colombia, with nearly 5.4 million people uprooted, has one of the highest internally displaced populations in the world.

Also on the victims’ register are relatives of those who have disappeared, been killed or kidnapped, civilians killed and injured by landmines and other devices, victims of sexual abuse, children born to women raped by members of armed groups, and children forcibly recruited as soldiers.

Since the Victims' Law was passed two years ago, the register shows that 636,184 Colombians have claimed compensation for the murder of a spouse or other relative, 93,165 have reported someone missing and 6,562 have reported being victims of torture. Nearly 4,000, mainly women, reported being victims of sexual violence at the hands of armed groups.

One major challenge is that although slow-moving peace talks are under  way in the Cuban capital, there is no ceasefire, and the number of victims is rising by the day. Last year alone, 115,133 Colombians became internally displaced, the register shows.

So far, around 350,000 Colombians have received compensation. Most of them use the money to buy or rebuild their homes, pay off debt, send their children to school and university and start small businesses.

The law also gives victims the right to know what happened to relatives killed or missing during the conflict and entitles them to health services, education and humanitarian aid.

Critics say the law must be implemented faster and more effectively, as millions of people are still waiting for compensation and justice.

Those implementing the law face significant challenges, including an incomplete land registry plagued with falsified deeds and a slow judicial system, experts say.

Another major hurdle is ensuring that conflict areas, concentrated along the jungle borders and in southern provinces where the state military presence is still fragile, are safe for the return of displaced families.

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