By Juan Camilo Gallego Castro, IPC Press Agency, EL ESPECTADOR, July 29, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Leonel sent his wife and his children with the four thousand campesinos that were displaced to the urban part of the town. He stayed home to take care of their belongings and his neighbors’ animals. That’s how he’s enduring the war; that’s how he waits until his family can return to the countryside.

The forced displacement of the campesinos in Ituango reminded the nation that it has more than five million displaced persons who have had to flee the countryside and the towns and go to the cities.

There are orphan dogs barking lonely in the towns (veredas) of Ituango. There are hogs with their piglets. There are hens with their baby chicks. There are cows and there are baby calves. There are empty houses; more than four thousand campesinos were displaced and had to go away from their mountains to live crammed together in the urban part of Ituango. A few stayed behind, like Leonel[1], who is watching over ten houses and more than a hundred animals that his neighbors had to leave behind.

The day they received the order to displace, several Community Action Boards got together and asked the armed groups for permission to leave a few people behind in the towns to take care of the animals. It’s said that this is the most serious displacement in the history of Antioquia. That number of people is enough to wipe out all of the inhabitants of Concepción in eastern Antioquia, or Olaya in the west. It’s not far from the reports from abandoned Districts (corregimientos) like Aquitania (San Francisco) and Santa Ana (Granada), where nearly all of the inhabitants were displaced by order of the guerrillas during the most difficult times of the armed conflict.

–Why did you stay behind, Leonel, if all of the people had to get out—I asked him on the telephone.

–We decided that there were a lot of young animals: hogs with piglets, cows with very young calves. Because of all that, the community asked us to stay. At that time we were taking care of more than ten houses, animals, cows, and calves—we have to feed all of those animals.

–What happened with the dogs?

–Those puppies are abandoned around here, until the people can come back. In some areas one or two people are left to give them something to eat. We are talking about a thousand families that had to leave and ordinarily here, every family would have some hens, dogs, and cats. I am taking care of about 150 animals, including baby chicks, ducks, hogs, very young cows, and dogs. I have two dogs and they are staying here with me.

Leonel sees the news and talks with his wife and his neighbors on the phone. They say they aren’t sure about anything, they don’t know when they will be coming back, that most likely the displacement is going to last quite a while. They gave the order to leave on Wednesday, July 21 and by Friday, July 23, I was already in the town alone here. Just a week ago, the forced displacement of the campesinos in Ituango reminded the country that it has more than five million displaced people that have fled the countryside and the villages to the cities, that the armed conflict has not ended.

In the empty houses, the animals wait for their owners to return.

When you know about Ituango, you turn to look at the conflict of the last three decades. The Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) or Clan del Golfo set up checkpoints on the rural roads; the dissidents of the FARC’s 18th Front also do that. A campesino could find both groups when he travels to the village or returns home. A few years ago in Colombia the lists made by the armed groups with the names of their victims were famous. Now “paracos” (paramilitaries) and guerrillas carry the lists and accompany them with photos of their victims that they exhibit on their phones. Now those names have faces. Some people accused of collaborating with the guerrillas or the paramilitaries succeeded in fleeing, getting away, seeking safety somewhere.

Nobody is allowed to be out on the trails or on the roads after 5:00 p.m. After the Peace Agreement, Ituango lived through a moment of tranquility; they took down the Police stockades in the main park, murders were less frequent, but that good fortune lasted just about two years. But the armed groups re-took control of the area and the government didn’t fill in and take over the territory. The demobilized guerrillas who had opted for peace had to leave the ETCR[2] at Santa Lucía and were displaced because there was no protection for their survival.

Here the majority of the people think it’s really tough; they think the Armed Forces are awfully quiet—Leonel tells me–. Somebody from Santa Lucía told me that that piece of territory belonged to the FARC and the demobilized combatants had to leave. The Army and the Police were there, and the other group, the Clan del Golfo was five minutes away.

And the Army and the Police know that they dress in civilian clothes and carry weapons and are leading 10-15 mules loaded with merchandize. And the Army and the Police, customarily, they don’t say anything.

There were even leaders who criticized the Colombian Army after there was a series of murders of local leaders between November 2020 and January of this year. What they emphasized is that after the killings, the soldiers would appear only later, or they would disappear before the paramilitaries arrived.

“Right now I’m in a municipality that’s far away from Ituango—a former leader of a Community Action Board told me three months ago–. I skipped out very quietly, without telling anybody. I just said goodbye to the community. I left with my family, and now I’m in a village that’s very calm, a place where I can eat and sleep in peace.” The story: the AGC were killing leaders for supposedly being collaborators with the guerrillas. It was impossible not to have dealing with the guerrillas; they had had control of the area for decades and you always had to live with them.

Listening to Leonel on the telephone, I remember what another leader told me just a little while ago: “The whole community wants you to be aware, and to complain that the Armed Forces are not doing their job as they ought to be doing with the armed groups, because the killings are going on right where the Armed Forces are present.”

Some campesinos told me that the strategy of the dissidents is to point out that the Army should also be fighting the AGC or the Clan del Golfo. As of the publication of this story, the Army’s 7th Division has still not responded as to the results achieved against the illegal armed actors in Ituango.

In spite of their lack of confidence in the Armed Forces, Leonel tells me that, in talking with his neighbors, they all think that “things will never be normal until the Army and the Police start patrolling the whole countryside, all of the towns (veredas).”

“In the month of February 2021, Ituango was the scene of the resurgence of the armed violence. More than 500 people from the towns of Quebrada del Medio, Las Arañas, Alto del Limón, Santa Lucía, San Román, El Quindío, and El Cañon de Santa Rita had to seek refuge in the urban part of the Municipality of Ituango. It’s the same people that were displaced in previous years with complete impunity and now they are victims once again. Every time the armed groups decide to order it, they suffer the same situation, without the government taking any interest in avoiding the people’s suffering,” says a press release dated July 25 from the Ríos Vivos Movement (Living Rivers Movement).

In their view, what’s going on now is a systematic land grab. “The government agencies have been incapable of paying proper attention to the people, preserving their lives, preventing displacement, and protecting the families’ private property.”

Brigadier General Gustavo Franco Gómez, Commander of Police Station 6, says that ever since the beginning of the displacement, they had undertaken an arrangement for the living situation of the displaced people.

Juvenal Díaz Mateus, Commander of the 7th Division of the Army, insists that they had re-organized an arrangement “to cover the towns where it appears, or the campesinos say, that their safety is not guaranteed.” According to him, security in Ituango is his concern, and that this year there have been no combats among the armed groups, and that now he has twice as many troops in the area as he had last year.

The Acting Governor of Antioquia Province, Luis Fernando Súarez, says that his main objective is to secure the area so as to permit the return of the families that had to leave, and that they now have received criminal complaint forms, alleging forced displacement, against the following: alias Camilo, alias Machín, and alias Ramiro, of the GAO (Organized Armed Group); residuary 18 of the former FARC, and against alias Richard, of the Clan del Golfo.

On July 27, the Army transported 40 tons of humanitarian aid to Ituango, including nonperishable food items, medication, and hygiene kits.[3]

This is the reaction right now about the displacement; in spite of the phone calls that former guerrillas and campesinos have made several years after the Peace Agreement. Carlos Zapata, Coordinator of the IPC [4] Observatory of Human Rights and Peace, focuses on that point: “that is partly because the Colombian Army and Colombian government have not carried out the commitments in the Peace Agreement to fully and completely take over the territory and protect the civilian population from the new armed actors.”

He recalls that once the FARC were concentrated in the ETCR Santa Lucía in Ituango, the AGC and the dissidents from the FARC’s 18th Front began disputing the territory that the FARC had abandoned. He recalls that since last year, the dissidents have been recovering territory they had lost, and the orders to empty the towns result from that, because they anticipate open combat between soldiers and paramilitaries.

Last weekend, President Iván Duque said in an interview with EL ESPECTADOR newspaper that his government had “done more than the previous administration to implement the peace.”

In Ituango, for example, 93 demobilized FARC combatants had to flee to Mutatá because their security could not be guaranteed; the campesinos have been displaced several times in the last two years because of the presence of guerrillas and paramilitaries; now four thousand people are crammed into the urban part of Ituango, their animals are orphaned in the towns, and Leonel is remaining by himself in the countryside, without knowing if the child he is expecting with his wife is a boy or a girl. Because the displacement and the drama have postponed the good news.

[1] Leonel is not his real name.

[2] Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces (ETCR in Spanish)

[3] Translator’s Note: Joe Parkin Daniels, a British journalist based in Bogotá, reports in the July 31 edition of The Guardian that, because of rains and flooding, only six tons have been delivered.

[4] IPC is the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification agency.

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