BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Escalating fighting between government troops and rebels in Colombia’s volatile south has forced thousands of indigenous Indians to flee their homes in recent weeks, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said.
Rebels from Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have been trying to topple successive governments for nearly five decades. Despite a U.S.-backed crackdown that has pushed insurgents into more remote hideouts, leftist guerrillas have stepped up attacks in the last few years.
One of the hardest-hit areas is Colombia’s southwestern province of Cauca. In recent weeks, the mountainous region - where the state’s presence has long been weak - has become the latest focus of the armed conflict.
“The situation in Cauca over the past month has become worrying for the civilian population,” Benno Kocher, head of the ICRC’s office in Cali, the main city of the neighbouring province, told AlertNet.
“We have seen more displaced people than we have in previous months. We have seen entire families displaced. We are worried about the situation and the suffering of civilians,” he added.
In the past three weeks, the ICRC has provided food and personal hygiene kits to around 6,500 people, many of whom have been displaced by the violence.
To escape the crossfire, families have moved temporarily to neighbouring cities and villages across Cauca, seeking shelter in local schools and a sports stadium, the ICRC said.
The Paez and Nasa Indians of Cauca, like other tribes, struggle to remain neutral as both sides in the conflict place pressure on indigenous people to get involved.
The rebels often demand food and shelter from them, while the army sometimes interrogates them about rebel movements and restricts their movements, indigenous leaders say.
‘COMBAT IN THEIR BACKYARD’
As a gateway to the Pacific Ocean, Cauca has long been used by drug-running rebels for the production and transport of cocaine, making it a hotspot in Colombia’s armed conflict.
The region is home to indigenous tribes, who have found themselves increasingly caught up in fighting as the rebels have stepped up attacks.
In July last year, rebels set off a bus bomb in Toribio, a town in Cauca, wounding more than 60 people and destroying hundreds of homes.
The head of the U.N. human rights office in Colombia, Todd Howland, who visited Cauca last week, said local communities are finding it hard to escape the violence.
“We met with indigenous groups who were displaced in an abandoned health post. They explained to us that the combat was going on in their backyard. You could hear shots in the background,” Howland told AlertNet by phone.
“The preparation for displacement seems to be quite limited on the part of the government. Areas of displacement are still areas of combat,” he added.
Colombia is home to one of the world's largest internally displaced populations – estimated at up to 4 million people - and its Indian minorities are disproportionately affected.
Many indigenous tribes live in remote, jungle areas where the conflict tends to be most intense.
Indigenous leaders in Cauca are demanding that government troops and rebels withdraw from their lands and leave them in peace, and tensions are running high.
Local television news reports on Tuesday showed members of the region’s indigenous tribes, brandishing sticks, dragging several army soldiers along the ground and chasing them away.
But the government appears determined to stay put.
“We will not cede a single centimetre of land,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told reporters on Tuesday.