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Colombia: The Calamity of Displaced People

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On Sunday I visited the Tercer Milenio Park, the area only a few blocks away from the President's palace that internally displaced people occupied in protest in Bogota. Since mid-March, about 2,000 people (one third minors) live here in fragile huts made of nylon and pieces of wood. By occupying the public sphere they intended to make visible the drama of more then 4 million forcibly displaced people, victims of a prolonged internal conflict and of political violence.

Claiming the risk of a H1N1 influenza epidemic, which in Bogota already killed seven people, the local government circled the camp with barriers and a green nylon film guarded by riot control squads. Government officials in red and yellow jackets are stationed at the entrance of the camp, wearing surgeon gloves and protection masks. No one has access to the camp, not even government officials, beside registered displaced people showing a photo ID around their neck. To enter, I needed the authorization granted by one of the displaced leaders. While I was wandering around the camp, a woman approached me and suspiciously asked who had granted me access. A kid, maybe 14 years old, questioned if I got permission from the people before I took their picture. Skepticism and suspicion marked the camp's environment. Some leaders accused the media of distorting the motives of their occupation and portraying them as criminals. "They think we are dedicated to drugs and prostitution," a man told me in perfect English, "but only because we are displaced it does not mean we are criminals or ignorant." "We are not the violent, but we are the victims of violence," said another young man who emphasized the non-violent character of their protest. He included the state as a violent actor denying their rights.

As I walked through the camp, people shared with me snapshots of their drama. A woman who worked as a teacher told me how 12 of her colleagues were killed and how she had to flee to save her life. Andres, a young man in his early twenties, told me his name appeared on a paramilitary death list. A peasant told me he had to leave when the armed forces arrived to eradicate coca fields. Every small talk mirrored the complexity and the depth of a conflict that continues to produce victims. According to the City of Bogota, every day 54 displaced people arrive in the capital. "The situation is overwhelming," declared the mayor, Samuel Moreno, "but we cannot close down the borders of the city."

Uprooted from their land and stripped of their rights as citizens, one wonders to whom these people belong, and what society they are a part of. In the aftermath of World War II, Hannah Arendt was concerned with the condition of rightlessness of the stateless people -- the new human order (or rather disorder) of the 20th century. The German philosopher highlighted how this condition was not a state of nature, but the product of political events that had rendered superfluous and useless certain people for economic, political, and social aims. "The calamity of the rightless," wrote Hannah Arendt, "is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and the freedom of opinion -- formulas which were designed to solve problem within given communities -- but they no longer belong to any community whatsoever."

Mediation efforts are undergoing between the municipality, the national government, and the displaced leaders. On behalf of the State, there is the urgency to resolve the situation as its perpetuation might produce the radicalization of the displaced population's claims and position, and -- some hint -- the infiltration of interests linked to illegal armed groups. Order! Order! is the imperative and the priority. And the interests of the uprooted risk to be displaced one more time.