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Conflict

Colombia renews pledges to its displaced people

About five million people are on the run in Colombia. Many have lost everything, including family members and the land they called home. But the government has now promised it will make good on a 2012 restitution law.

Gabriel Garces turns his head and looks wearily into the distance.

"The paramilitary chased me. They threatened to kill me and gave me three days to leave my farm. Their commander was a notorious killer," he says.

The 55-year-old Garces looks older than his age. His face is marked with war, violence and displacement.

Garces lives in Uraba, the coastal region in northwestern Colombia. It was one of the hotspots of the country's civil war. For years, left-wing guerillas, extreme right-wing paramilitary militias and the government have been fighting for control. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, and millions have been displaced in the course of the fighting. One of them is 43-year-old Alicia Pacheco.

"I was driven out by the guerillas, together with my family," she says. At the time, Pacheco was still a child. "Later, I tried to get our land back. The new owners threatened me. I showed everything to the authorities, but they didn't take notice of me," she adds.

Help for the victims

Now, things are supposed to change. Last year brought a law allowing people like Gabriel Garces and Alicia Pacheco to receive compensation and return to their land.

Many of the victims have lost everything. Their families were killed, and their land was taken away. Now they live in misery in big cities or work as cheap laborers on the plantations of large landowners.

For the first time, according to the government, these people now top its list of priorities.

The victims of Colombia's war waiting for the president to arrive (Photo: Nils Naumann / DW)

The event attract the both the media and the displaced people

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Uraba with his entire cabinet to promote the new restitution law.

"We want reconciliation, peace and development," he explained to around 20,000 displaced people gathered for a speech.

"No one will stop us. Our vision is that every displaced (person), who has a legitimate claim to his land can return to it," he added.

Prior to the president's visit, there were anonymous threats against some of the attendees. Still, many of the displaced from the region showed up for the event.

President Santos was casually dressed in light blue shirt, blue trousers. Even his choice of words was unusual for a conservative politician. For the government, it wasn't just about a restitution law, he said.

"It's about an agricultural revolution. The countryside will be transformed in a region of development and good living conditions. It's a revolution without weapons - with the constitution and the law in hand," Santos stated.

Unjust land distribution

Few countries can match the unequal distribution of land in Colombia. 3,000 major landowners control around half of the ground that is used for agriculture. So the president's statements, in front of the displaced like Alicia Pacheco, were welcome news for many.

"The president's speech gave us hope. How he spoke, how he will help us, and that he means that, that makes us happy," she says.

Carmen Palencia, who heads Tierra y Vida, an organization that helps the displaced, also welcomes the restitution law.

"We expect that the land will finally be returned to its rightful owners through it," she says.

The displaced at a demonstration in Colombia. (Photo: Nils Naumann / DW)

Displaced people in Colombia continue to hope that their wait for justice will end

Around five million people have been displaced in recent years. And about 1.6 million of them have lost their land, according to Palencia's group. That land corresponds to an area around the size of Austria. Today, most of the land has since been sold off and is in the hands of major landowners. This makes the government's plan a mammoth task.

The law has been effect since the beginning of 2012, with the goal of compensating victims and restituting their land within ten years. But not much has happened to date despite the high expectations. Most of the time has been spent on creating the relevant bureaucratic structures. Last December, the first 31 families received titles to the land that was stolen from them. In addition, each family received around 10,000 euros (around $13,000) each in compensation for their destroyed homes.

Fear of renewed violence

But families' ability to return home is far from guaranteed. The biggest problem is the extreme right, says activist Carmen Palencia.

"The extreme right are organized and armed. They won't allow anyone to take the land that was grabbed back. That's what they are killing the leaders of the displaced and the applicants for. They are doing everything so that they don't have to give this land back," she says.

Since 2010, more than 30 leaders within the restitution movement have been murdered. Most of them have had to leave their home regions. Carmen Palencia has also received death threats. Today, she lives in the capital, Bogota. She only comes to Uraba when accompanied by bodyguards from the central government.

"The influence of the paramilitary and the illegal landowners is still very high in Uraba," she explains. "Their backers finance senate members, mayors and governors."

Colombia's President Santos giving the financial compensation to one of the victims (Photo: Nils Naumann / DW)

Colombia's President Santos offers financial compensation to one of the victims

As such, many of the displaced people remain afraid.

"A farmer doesn't count here. Without security, we are fair game. These bandits are still there. If the government doesn't give us any security, then it will be dangerous to return. It doesn't cost these people anything to shoot someone and leave him in the mountains," Palencia explains.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has promised security to the displaced. It's thanks to him that people like Gabriel Garces and Alicia Pacheco are feeling hopeful again. Now, the president has to ensure that their trust won't vanish. But that is difficult. The influence of the central government in the regions of conflict like Uraba is limited. The civil war that has left several million people displaced continues. That's why success in the ongoing negotiations between the governmentand FARC guerillas on a peace treaty, which also focuses on the land issue, is of central importance to Colombia's future.

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