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National Agenda : Cities of Refugees : Rebel warfare, poverty and drug violence have driven tens of thousands of peasants into Colombia's urban areas. A time bomb of frustration is ticking while the government promises relief.

March 28, 1995|STEVEN AMBRUS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CIUDAD BOLIVAR, Colombia — Brutalized by warfare and drug violence, tens of thousands of Colombian peasants have fled the countryside during the last decade to settle in this sprawling shantytown outside Bogota.

They are still streaming in, building row upon row of rickety, plywood-and-aluminum shacks and posing a major test for the 7-month-old government of President Ernesto Samper. Jobs here are few and public services are scarce.

"The peasants flee their homes in terror, leaving whole villages abandoned, hopingthey won't be killed," said Francisco Zuluaga, a Roman Catholic priest who directed a church study on internal migration.

Ciudad Bolivar is a city of refugees. Many of its 1.5 million people have fled the savagery of the 3-decade-old war between the Colombian army and Marxist rebels--fought largely in the countryside. Others were uprooted by land-hungry drug traffickers or right-wing death squads.

More than 540,000 peasants fled rural violence during the last decade, according to the church study, and tens of thousands of others fled countryside poverty.

Today, the residents of Ciudad Bolivar and other "belts of misery" around Colombia's major cities have created time bombs of frustration, social workers say.

The situation is a top priority for Samper's government, which came to power last August promising relief for the poor, promises that contrasted Samper with his predecessor, President Cesar Gaviria, whose free-market policies squeezed the poor.

Like many Latin countries, Colombia is seeking a formula for national progress, cycling between pro-business and social welfare administrations.

"We are trying to rapidly generate employment and improve housing and nutrition for people on the edge," said Eduardo Diaz Uribe, the director of the government's Social Solidarity Network, which envisions a burdensome $3.2 billion in emergency spending over four years.

The solidarity network, a social welfare plan, is a cornerstone of the new government. Gaviria's programs triggered a business boom but widened the gap between rich and poor.

Samper's government has committed itself to distributing land, providing health and housing for the poor and implementing an anti-inflation program.

But Teolinda Sanchez, a 59-year-old widow in Bogota's La Paz neighborhood, questioned whether the policies are working.

"In the country, we had plantains, coffee, chocolate, pigs and hens," she said in her grimy shack of cardboard and plywood. "Here we have only this hovel."

Sanchez said masked men murdered her first husband 12 days after entering her village. Her second husband was carried off by assailants.

Today, Sanchez's family of four children and 25 grandchildren lives in squalor on two minimum-wage incomes and her own meager earnings as a domestic servant.

"Up to now there has been very little aid to the poor," said Jaime Garcia, a 42-year-old part-time construction worker who fled the violent countryside with his wife and seven children more than a year ago. "With few legal documents and no contacts, it is very difficult for country people to find work."

The psychological burden of surviving atrocities is a major hurdle.

In January, the government admitted responsibility for 107 killings committed between 1988 and 1991 in which soldiers and death squads were implicated. In a groundbreaking decision, the Bogota government decided not only to prosecute military officers involved but also to compensate family members.

"The majority of refugees come to the cities after a relative, spouse or close friend has been assassinated, often in their presence," said Father Horacio Arango, the director of Colombia's Program for Peace.

"That makes the psychological and emotional situation of refugee families extremely delicate."

The problem is complicated by the youth of most refugees, 42% of whom are under 15, according to church figures.

Social workers get children to draw pictures of their experiences as a form of therapy. But many of them remain unable to fully concentrate in school or communicate with others.

Those expected to care for orphaned brothers and sisters suffer the most.

Many join gangs to defend their families and steal to support them. The resentment they feel at losing their childhood becomes a generalized hostility, social workers say. Alcohol and drug abuse are common.

"Repeated experiences of violence desensitize people to cruelty and transform them into indifferent human beings," the Catholic Church report warned.

Now, despite the terror of the past and the literal disappearance of some of their villages, many refugees dream of returning to the countryside.

They dress in farmers' woolen ponchos. They shop at farmers' markets. And in many parts of Ciudad Bolivar, they let their chickens and pigs run wild through the dirt streets as if they had never left home.

More on Latin Slums

* Middle-class Rio de Janeiro residents have found that life in impoverished favelas is in many ways better and more crime-free than in more affluent neighborhoods, and they're moving For reprints of "Choosing Slums," call Times on Demand at 808-8463. Press c,11,pb *8630, select option 1 and order No. 6106. $2.

Details on Times electronic services, B4

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