Colombian President Andres Pastrana ruptured the Peace Talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on February 20th, ordering the armed forces to retake the demilitarized zone, a 42,139-square-kilometer area of Colombia was given to them three years ago in an effort to establish a peace process.
The bombing and troop invasion of the former rebel safe-haven has since expanded to neighboring departments, which have been designated as the "Theater of Operations." There is little reliable data available regarding the humanitarian situation on the ground because the military is restricting access to many areas of the affected departments. Religious organizations that were already present in the region before the military offensive was launched are the only institutions issuing reports from within many areas of the war-zone. Their reports indicate that civilians have suffered from bombings, fumigations, massacres, forced displacements, and a lack of water and basic foodstuffs.
This is a chronological journal of one village in the Putumayo since the rupture of the peace talks, some 200 kilometers south of the former-demilitarized zone.
On February 28, Carlos Sanchez, US Coordinator: In Solidarity with Colombia, of Catholic Relief Services, obtained the following information from a Padre in Putumayo who requested anonymity for security reasons.
According to Sanchez:
"Padre is working closely with the community to ration and distribute resources, as this region south of the former demilitarized zone is now increasingly isolated from the rest of the country. The communities are having difficulties with food shortages.
"In anticipation of being cut off completely from the Bogota. Father’s team organized a small committee. Yesterday they met with the mayor and the local parish pastor. They are attempting to develop a campaign of food rationing and education, so that people will reduce water consumption and take maximum advantage of food supplies. The same is occurring in Padre ‘s home parish."
"Methods for caring for and obtaining food were discussed: the fundamentals of water and food storage, recovery of food stuffs from the countryside, making flour from chontaduro [a kind of palm] and plantano [cooking bananas], food exchange between city and countryside."
"The more dramatic considerations of personal safety were also discussed such as, methods for dealing with the reduction of risks with nightly displacements, and fly-overs [sleeping outside the house etc.] and developing a chain of support with the town government and the parish."
"The community had already been suffering food shortages, as they had been living in a region that was fumigated. Over the last six months they have asked for help from the federal government. Help was to arrive through the presidential development program known as "Plante," and so far has not arrived.
"The community needs help with funding, "Padre â€™s town has run out of money, they collected some $200 dollars in loans to get food supplies, this has already been used up. It provided us with a small amount of food, and a family has been placed in charge to distribute it in an emergency.
"The Red Cross has not yet arrived.
"They are looking at all possible routes [as some routes are much more dangerous than others] to be able to get hold of some grain, which is viewed the most important commodity.
"The people are aware that help may not arrive, and have the strength to survive with what they have. But supplying themselves beforehand with what they can to avoid a shortage would be best.
"The nearest town to obtain food supplies is a dayâ€™s trip away. Padre explains, "If the situation worsens, the option of going there by foot exists, some several hours over the mountains.
"Thus far this community had seen no changes. There have been no confrontations so far, no displaced people have arrived.
"Padre’s community consists of some 5,000 people. There are 1,500 people in the town, 700 children and adults surrounding the town, not counting the 2,500 people that live in the rural areas.
Sanchez was able to secure some outside funding for this community, as CRS cannot provide money directly to individuals.
On March 22, Sanchez received another report from the Padre in Putumayo:
"I spoke with the Father last night over the phone, as he managed to get to [a large town].
"Father reiterated how things have worsened since the February 20 break between the Government and FARC negotiations. He says that things have become markedly dangerous since March 6th in all of Putumayo. In early March, the FARC abandoned the towns in the region and the people living there, as government troops, national police, and paramilitaries moved into the area in force.
"Since then, 30 people have been disappeared and murdered, in the area. Three people that were particularly close to the parish were murdered in the last week.
"An old man, that tended a small river launch and kiosk, was brutally tortured and murdered by paramilitaries who proceed to draw and quarter his remains. The paramilitaries claimed that the man had assisted the FARC, and that his murder was a sign to those that offer support to the FARC. The community recognized that there were instances when the old man had supplied and availed his launch to the FARC, but he had no option of not doing so. Failure to provide the FARC with what they wanted would have led to his death, therefore the old man was forced into the action that ultimately led to his death.
"Father mentioned that the paramilitaries’ ranks arrived with former members of the community and former FARC members that have join the paramilitaries and are the ones that have been guiding the ‘cleansing’ of the population.
"During the congressional elections (two weeks ago) the FARC imposed a blockade of all trail and river traffic in the region, in an attempt to keep the local population from voting. Three days after the election, the FARC loosened its control over the area, and trade commenced to flow into the region once more. Nevertheless, the price of foodstuff has increased 30 percent and fuel has surged 50 percent. The community expects the FARC to impose another blockade that would disrupt the presidential elections in May.
"Father has been able to arrive in [the large town] and has been able to buy supplies. He was encouraged to hear that we were keeping him and his community in our prayers, and appreciates the moral support that we have offered to the people of Putumayo."
In an interview with Sanchez about these reports, his only comment was, "We have lost a lot of good people."
Sanchez is currently awaiting his next correspondence with the Padre.