BOGOTA – The Colombian vote to reject an internationally feted peace deal has left millions of people driven from their homes by a half-century of fighting in a state of limbo. Efforts to end 52 years of civil war in Colombia were thwarted last week when a referendum narrowly rejected the peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or FARC), the oldest rebel group in the Americas.
The unexpected result has left both the government and rebels scrambling to explain what will happen next. As the shock sank in, both parties have restated their commitment to a diplomatic solution. The subsequent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Colombia’s president only served to underline the extent to which the result had caught the international community by surprise.
The most obvious losers are the internal refugees – estimates of their numbers range from 6 million to 15 million – from the civil war, many of whom had hoped peace would deliver them a chance to return home.
Many have stories like that of Olga Betancourt, a campaigner for the rights of the displaced. A young mother from a village on the eastern plains, she fled her home in 2002 when paramilitaries overran the area trying to drive out leftwing guerrillas associated with the FARC. “I remember watching the result come in on TV,” she said. “Then my son asked, when can we go home? It broke my heart to tell him I have no idea.”
The accord, rejected by voters October 2, was the product of four years of tense negotiations in Cuba, with agreements on justice and reparations to victims proving particularly thorny. The final deal, at some 300 pages, promised new funds to compensate victims and mechanisms to retrieve stolen land. Both would have given internal refugees a chance to return home.
Internally displaced people, or IDPs, across Colombia were hoping the referendum would pass, and opinion polls had overwhelmingly predicted such a result. President Juan Manuel Santos, who staked his political reputation on a peace deal with the FARC, said the result has left the displaced in a “grey zone.”
“As usual, it will be the victims who are most vulnerable who will suffer most,” said Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. She pointed not only to specific parts of the deal thrashed out between two warring factions, but the promise of international and government investment that now, too, is uncertain.
Rubi Alba Castano is one of those victims. She was forced from her home for the first time in 1986 when paramilitaries arrived in the area in 1986 to flush out leftwing forces sympathetic to the FARC. Since then, she has had to flee a half dozen times. She struggles to list all the places she has left behind. Castano’s husband was killed in 2006 in a murder she believes was connected to her prominent role as a campaigner for workers’ rights. He is one of 220,000 people, 80% of whom were civilians, estimated to have been killed in the war. Her daughter now lives in another country – Castano will not say which – while she continues her campaign work in Bogota.
“Of course I want to go home,” Castano said from her office in the downtown area of the nation’s capital. “We all want to go home, but we can only do it when we know it is safe. Right now, we are living in a limbo.”
The campaign against the referendum was spearheaded by hardline former president Alvaro Uribe, who waged a brutal military campaign against the FARC. During his two terms, between 2002 and 2010, forced displacement reached the highest levels since the war began. His time in power was dogged by accusations that he used rightwing paramilitary groups to carry out atrocities, free from the scrutiny government security forces would attract.
Now a senator, Uribe was poised to exit the political stage if the referendum passed. Instead, he finds himself the kingmaker in re-negotiations with the rebel group following the rejection of the referendum.
The charismatic ex-president is now calling for a deal with the FARC that would grant “judicial relief” to members of the military, jail time for rebels and further protection to landowners. The “No” campaign successfully argued that the Havana accords would see tracts of land taken from wealthy owners, although most independent observers rejected this claim.
“Uribe wants the FARC to surrender, not agree to a peace deal … he has financial interests in maintaining the war,” said Castano, referring to the ex-president’s considerable land holdings. “And now he’s the one to decide the future. Where is the justice if victims suffer while politicians play their games?”
Human rights groups in Colombia and abroad are calling on the feuding politicians to settle their differences swiftly and reach a revised agreement with the FARC. “The longer this goes on, the more at risk these people are,” said Christian Visnes, country director for Colombia at the Norwegian Refugee Council. “It’s difficult for these people to believe in a state of peace, and that could change if there is peace, but first that has to happen. This uncertainty is the worst thing about it, and these people really need the war to stop – they don’t want another victim.”
Visnes said specific elements of the accord are now indefinitely stalled: “The team to remove landmines [in former FARC-controlled zones] would have helped people return.”
Colombia is blighted by more landmines than any other country in the world apart from Afghanistan. An estimated 11,500 people have been killed or maimed by the devices since 1990. Many farmers fled their lands when the FARC arrived due to fears their children would step on mines.
“The only way return is possible is when there is a durable situation: a sustainable way of living and a dignified way of living,” Visnes said.
An emotional Castano, recalling her daughter’s inability to return home, blamed Colombian politicians, including the current and former presidents, for neglecting the needs of the conflict’s victims, saying: “We have lost so much and suffered for so long. All we want is the war to end.”