TURBO, Colombia — Five months of nights tossing on the concrete floor of a brightly lighted auditorium and days playing in a makeshift refugee camp's mud and open sewers left Alejandro Perez's 2-year-old daughter shaking with fever. Desperate for money to take her to a big-city hospital, Perez defied Colombia's brutal private militias. Last month, he and his 16-year-old nephew returned to his farm near the Panama border to harvest timber.
When their bodies floated down the Perancho River two days later, the 1,200 refugees at this camp, improvised from a sports complex, knew that, despite subhuman conditions here, they had made the right choice by staying.
But the Colombian government now wants them--like the rest of the 14,000 refugees who poured out of the jungles this spring in the northwestern province of Choco--to go home. The refugees, however, are terrified. They say the government cannot protect their remote farms and villages from attack by the private militias that ordered them to leave.
The Choco dislocation--the first such mass movement of Colombians in more than three decades of fighting among the armed forces, guerrillas and private militias--has embarrassed the government by calling attention to the growing problem of refugees from Colombia's prolonged civil war. Colombian human rights groups estimate that the fighting has forced 920,000 people from their homes since 1985--one in every 40 Colombians.
Cesar Garcia, the presidential counselor on the refugees, estimates that 220,000 people have been displaced in the past two years alone. "It has accelerated since the last half of 1996," he said, adding, "We really do not know how many there are."
A further cause for concern is that once, families and small communities were singled out and threatened because of their supposed support for one side or the other. Now the private militias, apparently emboldened by the success of their war against the guerrillas, have evacuated an entire province.
"We have entered the phase of mass displacements," said Juan Manuel Bustillo, executive director of the Support Group for the Displaced, an umbrella group of six Colombian organizations that work with refugees. "The private militias are occupying these zones because they think that the way to get rid of the guerrillas is through the civilian population."
Militia Drive on Rebels
Those tactics have proved successful. While the Colombian armed forces have lost ground to the insurgents, the Peasant Self-Defense Forces--the most powerful of Colombia's militias, private armies hired by large landowners and merchants to fight the rebels--have driven the guerrillas from township after township in northern Colombia over the past decade.
But the price of the militias' triumphs has been high. In 1995 and 1996--when the Peasant Self-Defense Forces were moving southwest from their stronghold in cattle country into this rich banana-producing region--the homicide rate here rose to 254 per 100,000, the highest in Colombia, which in turn is among the highest in the world.
Refugees like Alberto are still streaming into Bogota, the capital, from the region known as Uraba. On May Day, he and his brother were stopped at a private militia roadblock on the way back to their farm after shopping in the nearby town of Apartado. They were told they were carrying too much--more than 25 pounds of goods; they must be planning to give some to the remnants of the guerrillas still believed to be hiding out in the hills, the militia soldiers told them.
"They told us to evacuate," said Alberto, a wiry man who told the story in a flat voice. The brothers began harvesting crops to raise money for the move. When they returned home from selling a truckload of corn May 15, militia soldiers were waiting.
"They ordered us to sit on chairs," he said. "My brother sat down, but I ran for the banana field."
The militias fired and missed. He ran to the hills, where a friend hid him. His brother's body was found the next day in a chicken coop. Alberto's friend contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross, and it moved Alberto and his family to Bogota the same day.
From Uraba, the private militias chased the guerrillas across the gulf into Choco, where they are now pursuing them. Choco is a sparsely settled, mountainous province where rivers are the highways. Over the past 20 years, settlers have cleared jungle to make way for large, subsistence farms, with orchards, vegetables and livestock. Few have title to their land, and most are part of Colombia's black minority, whose rights are not always as well protected as those of other ethnic groups.
Choco has taken on increased strategic importance in recent years because of plans for electricity-producing dams and talk of a canal to connect this nation's Pacific and Atlantic coasts.