Refugee camp in Bogota park evokes pain of conflict - GulfToday

Refugee camp in Bogota park evokes pain of conflict

An Embera indigenous woman walks in a makeshift camp in Bogota's National Park. AFP

An Embera indigenous woman walks in a makeshift camp in Bogota's National Park. AFP

Far from their ancestral homes, more than 1,000 indigenous people displaced by conflict have been squatting in squalor since September in one of the Colombian capital’s most emblematic parks. “We want rights and dignified conditions... food and security,” said Luz Mary Queragama, one of the group’s representatives. There are around 550 children among about 1,300 people camping in the National Park that sits alongside one of the busiest avenues in Bogota. Some children are suffering from “malnutrition” and cold, said Queragama.

The majority of the squatters come from the Embera indigenous community based in the southwest regions of Cauca and Choco.

They say they fled violence by armed groups in their homelands and cannot return.

After five months of fruitless negotiations, the humanitarian problem has become a “historic crisis” according to the Colombian press. With its shady paths, huge trees and playgrounds, the National Park is a rare island of greenery in the capital that attracts crowds at the weekend.

But instead of walkers, the park is now filled with tarpaulin, camp fires and washing lines.

Bare-footed children run around while mothers carrying babies on their backs sweep the paths and tidy up their makeshift shelters. The smell of cooked corn and plantains fill the air. There are just two public toilets in the park, while clothes are washed under a bridge using a sewer.

Men carrying sticks provide security for the camp. “No-one should live in these conditions,” said one volunteer delivering supplies to the camp. “There are rats, tuberculosis, all sorts of illnesses ... the mayor’s office is neglecting them, the government is doing nothing for them,” she added, without giving her name.

The mayor’s office insists it deployed “immediate humanitarian assistance” and is trying to find shelter for the refugees in Bogota ahead of helping them to “return in safety” to their homes.

But the squatters accuse the government of failing them. In January, the interior ministry agreed to work with the mayor’s office to coordinate the displaced people’s return home.

The mayor’s office says close to 1,200 Embera people have already returned to their villages with another 400 rehoused elsewhere.

Mayor Claudia Lopez has ruled out the “installation of an indigenous territory in the city.”

Indigenous people have been the most affected by Colombia’s interminable conflict, after black Colombians. A series of bloody attacks and murders in Cauca, where armed groups are battling over control of the lucrative drug trade, has caught the national attention.

During 60 years of conflict, Bogota — home to eight million people — welcomed hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict.

Since the 2016 peace deal signed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government, the capital has been home to 380,000 of the conflict’s victims, including more than 19,000 indigenous people.

Most of them live in poverty in the poor south of the capital, getting by selling their handicrafts and begging. But the gathering of more than 1,000 indigenous people in a single location of the capital is unprecedented. The coronavirus pandemic — which has left 40 percent of Colombians living in poverty — has made things worse, particularly since the end of a housing allowance that forced many to head to the National Park.

The current priority for the mayor’s office is to carry out a census of the occupants of the camp.

But the last time municipal officials tried so they were beaten and kicked out.

“They are illegally occupying a public park and preventing the public from using it,” said one traffic policeman.

“They cut down trees for wood. They beg during the daytime and drink at night,” she complained.

“It’s a terrible situation for local residents,” said a cook who works in a nearby restaurant.

“Some more or less political organizations bring them food and encourage them to stay there. It’s getting very difficult.”

A bloody tragedy flared up tensions at the end of January. An Embera mother and her two young daughters were crushed to death by a truck, whose driver was beaten to death by a mob. The only solution is “to have everyone rehoused here in Bogota,” said Queragama.

“What we need from the government is guarantees that we will have housing here in the city, not outside Bogota. “If there are government guarantees, we can start talking about a return to our territories.”

But she fears that the “government is lying to take us back to our territory (and) to leave us there.”

Agence France-Presse

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