Uprooted by war, Colombian indigenous people doubt peace


Bogota (AFP)

When Delfina Wazorna thinks back on the home she left behind, she remembers machine guns, armed men and death threats.

It makes the Embera indigenous woman skeptical of the peace deal that Colombia's government and its main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have vowed to sign in the first three months of the new year.

"There will never be peace," said Wazorna, 54, who fled her ancestral lands eight years ago with her family after they found their house surrounded with explosives.

They drifted from city to city before finally landing at a shelter in the capital Bogota set up to accommodate members of her indigenous community uprooted by the half-century conflict.

"It's all lies. These people don't forgive. The guerrillas told me, 'You can hide for 30 years, but if you come back you'll die,'" a traditional healer named Ariel told AFP at the same shelter.

Ariel, who declined to give his last name, also fled in 2004 after someone put a machete into the wall of his house with a death threat hanging from the blade.

The Embera, whose lands lie mainly in the tropical forests of the Choco and Risaralda departments of western Colombia, have been trapped in the crossfire of Colombia's messy, many-sided war.

The conflict, which has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced six million, has drawn in several leftist rebel groups, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers since the Marxist FARC was launched in 1964.

The Embera say they have been terrorized by the FARC, the National Liberation Army (ELN), a rival rebel movement that has yet to join the peace process, and other armed groups.

More than 1,000 Embera have fled to Bogota over the years, where they get by however they can -- often by begging.

Many try to return after a period of urban exile. But their homecoming is complicated by lingering violence and a lack of infrastructure.

"There are still risks in Embera territory," said Julia Madariaga, who runs the ethnic affairs unit at the government agency set up to help victims of the conflict.

- From jungle to street -

Since the shelter in Bogota was created in 2011, it has hosted 1,098 Embera. Of those, just 87 remain today.

But not all have managed to return home. Authorities say there are currently 370 Embera holed up in cheap hotels in the capital, paying $2 to $7 a night.

"I could say I'm going home, but where?" said Norbey Giraldo, 23, who tried to go back to Risaralda with a group of 112 families four years ago, but ended up back in Bogota.

The influx was too large for the indigenous reservation, and the government resettled some of the families elsewhere.

Giraldo, who first arrived in Bogota as a boy about 12 years ago and left as a married man with three kids, said he was taken to a plot of land with no house whose previous owner had left after his two children were killed.

"We received threats by armed men from I don't know which group. They told us, 'Get out of here. This isn't your land,'" Giraldo said.

"They gave us until December 15 to leave."

He and his family didn't wait around until then.

"The homecomings have been awful," said Alberto Wazorna, an Embera who sits on Colombia's National Indigenous Organization. He said there was not enough health, education and housing infrastructure in place for returnees.

Unable to go home because of lingering guerrilla activity, Lisandro Nacavera, a 50-year-old Embera who fled 16 years ago, is working on setting up a new reservation on private land.

He said it saddens him to see the way his people live in the city.

"They've gotten used to begging instead of farming their land," he said.

"An Embera without land isn't an Embera."