CRISIS IN ACHEH
Eight months after the Indian Ocean tsunami smashed into Aceh in December 2004, the Indonesian
government and separatist rebels signed a pact ending one of Asia's longest running wars.The
extraordinary size of the disaster, which left nearly 170,000 dead or missing in the northern
Sumatran province, helped reignite peace talks.But the success of the weapons handover by rebels
and the almost simultaneous withdrawal of thousands of troops stunned even the optimists.The
threat of militia violence has not materialised and prisoners given amnesty have returned home
"We are surprised that we are finishing the conflict so fast," Indonesia's Vice President JusufKalla
said in early 2006. "(The rebels are) surprised with how our army pulled back, and the people are
surprised with how peaceful it is there after 30 years."
The beginning of war
The war began in 1976 when the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or the Free Aceh Movement,
launched its campaign for independence. At its helm was Hasan Muhammad di Tiro, who was
descended from a family with close ties to Aceh's former sultans and had worked in Indonesia's
mission to the United Nations in the 1950s.Fierce reaction from government troops forced Tiro and
other GAM leaders to flee to Sweden, where they set up a self-styled government in exile.The
separatists accused Jakarta of grabbing too much of the revenue from the province's abundant
natural resources like gas.GAM maintained Jakarta was an occupying power in Aceh whose people
were culturally and linguistically different from other Indonesians. (This could be claimed by many in
a country made up of hundreds of ethnic groups with their own cultures and languages.)Aceh is
more solidly Muslim and more orthodox than the rest of the country. About 98 percent of Aceh's 4
million people are Muslim. Its location on the western end of the archipelago made it a gateway for
Islamic influence and its main city Banda Aceh is known as "The Veranda of Mecca" (Islam's holy
city).Around 15,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the war. Independent groups say both
sides, but especially the military, violated human rights. Troops have been accused of rape, torture
and extra-judicial killings.Some government and rebel fighters also profited financially from the
conflict via illegal tolls on roads, kidnapping, and demands for protection money.
The government, which launched a massive military offensive and imposed a state of emergency
after the collapse of a short-lived truce in 2003, continued to carry out operations against the rebels
in the weeks immediately after the tsunami.
But in late January 2005 the two sides met face to face in Helsinki for the first peace talks in nearly
Both parties made important compromises leading to the signing of a peace pact on Aug. 15. GAM
dropped its independence demand and the government agreed to let GAM members participate in
"I think the tsunami somehow already changed minds ... that this tragedy is much bigger than war,"
Acehnese political activist Ahmad Humam Hamid told Reuters at the time. "We need our kids to go
to school. We need our families to be safe. We need farmers to start living again as before."
The rebels disbanded their military wing at the end of December 2005 after handing in hundreds of
weapons. Indonesia pulled out the last of its troops and police reinforcements shortly afterwards.
A handful of GAM leaders returned to Aceh in April to help with the peace process after years in
In December, former GAM spokesman Irwandi Yusuf was elected governor in Aceh's first direct
election, aimed at shoring up the peace pact.
He had previously been jailed but escaped in 2004 when the tsunami struck his prison.
As part of the autonomy package, Aceh has been given the right to adopt strict Islamic sharia laws in
the judicial system.
The violence has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people over the years. Fighting and restrictions
on movement have also disrupted livelihoods, schooling and healthcare.
No one has kept tabs on figures but the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates
500,000 to 800,000 were forced to move at some point between 1999 and 2004.
Much of the displacement was short-term. Many moved to mosques and other public buildings
when their villages were at risk of attack, returning a few weeks later to rebuild their homes.
But an estimated 120,000 people sought long-term refuge outside the province between 1999 and
2002, according to the IDMC. These were mostly people of Javanese origin. Many moved to North
Sumatra and received a lump sum from the government in return for giving up their status as
internally displaced people (IDPs).
After Indonesia launched its military campaign to eradicate GAM in 2003, some 125,000 people
moved to camps managed by the army, but it is believed a far greater number went to live with host
families or into the forest.
The vast majority had returned home by the end of 2004, but most had lost their livelihoods and
were struggling to survive when the tsunami struck.
Indonesia refused to allow foreign aid workers into the province during its military campaign but
opened up the area after the tsunami.
The tsunami, which left half a million people homeless in Indonesia, smashed up towns, villages,
seaports, airports and kilometres of roads.
More than 600,000 people lost their livelihoods, half of them fishermen. Farmers and small traders
were also badly hit. Some 60,000 hectares of agricultural land were damaged.
Male survivors outnumber women by a ratio of 3:1 in some villages, and overall, far more women
and children were killed, changing family and social structures.
Even before the tsunami, the conflict had taken its toll on Aceh, where much of the province's
infrastructure was dysfunctional.
The 2005 peace agreement smoothed the way for a multi-billion dollar internationally backed
reconstruction programme in Aceh.
The Indonesian body overseeing recovery, the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR),
says between 80,000 and 110,000 new homes are needed. The BRR aims to get everyone into
permanent housing by 2007.
Indonesia says it will need $5-5.5 billion for long-term recovery . Some $6.5 billion has been pledged.
There has been criticism that tsunami IDPs have received far more attention than conflict IDPs. The
United Nations and aid agencies stress they must be treated equally to avoid creating damaging
social and economic divisions.
Aceh has significant resources in minerals, palm oil, rubber and other agricultural products such as
Analysts have said the new leadership will need to deliver on reducing widespread unemployment
and on housing for tens of thousands still homeless after the tsunami.
Development efforts in east Aceh were dealt a blow in December 2006, when floods and landslides
forced hundreds of thousands into temporary shelters.
Authorities blamed heavy rains and the effects of deforestation for the destruction. Lack of
adequate forest cover had left the ground less able to absorb excess water.
Three years after peace, politics in Aceh remains volatile, according to a World Bank report which
surveyed the area in 2008.
Localised violence has risen since August 2005, especially kidnappings and murders, the report says.
There is concern that violence and crime could affect foreign investment and economic
The report also said demonstrations and arguments arising from aid issues such as housing
rehabilitation can harm social cohesion.
Chechnya and the North Caucasus
Chechen rebels have been fighting Russian forces since 1994, but the armed conflict has now largely
Chechnya, on Russia's southern fringes, has its own cultural, linguistic and ethnic identity. Most
people in the surrounding North Caucasus region are Muslim in contrast to traditionally Orthodox
Chechens claimed independence in 1991, and at first a fragile Russian government turned a blind
eye to the rebellion.
But in 1994 then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent in troops to suppress the uprising. Russian
forces, though, suffered surprising losses and withdrew in 1996.
AslanMaskhadov, who led the rebels during the 1994-96 war, was elected president of a de facto
independent Chechnya in 1997. The ceasefire granted the region substantial autonomy.
Hardline Chechen rebels defied Maskhadov's leadership and launched cross-border attacks on
neighbouring Dagestan to the east, sparking a Russian retaliation. It was Vladimir Putin, then Russian
prime minister, who launched a second war in 1999.
Human rights organisation Memorial estimates the number of killed or missing civilians at up to
50,000 for the first Chechen war and up to 25,000 for the second and its aftermath.
According to official figures, around 10,000 servicemen were killed in both wars, but experts and
rights campaigners say the toll is much higher.
Memorial, for example, estimates about 15,000 Russian soldiers died in total.
Homes in ruins
At the height of the second Chechen war in early 2000, the New York-based Human Rights Watch
said fighting and abuses by security forces and Chechen rebels had forced 300,000 people to flee
As the war cooled, authorities put heavy pressure on the displaced to return and in 2004 closed
camps in the neighbouring Russian region of Ingushetia which housed most of the refugees.
Most did return but the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said in early 2009 there were still 55,000
displaced in Chechnya, most of them living in private accommodation.
UNHCR also said there are some 13,000 displaced people in Ingushetia and 3,500 in Dagestan.
Unemployment is rampant in Chechnya, but the capital, Grozny, has been rebuilt after 85 percent of
it was damaged or destroyed during major offensives at the end of 1994 and again in 1999-2000.
Small businesses are opening up, the civilian airport has re-opened and the stadium has been
However, landmines laid by both Chechen rebels and pro-Russian forces are still a danger to
Politics and attitudes in Russia
Sporadic fighting continues in the mountains and the south of Chechnya. But Russia has scaled down
its presence, and left the local pro-Moscow government to stabilise the region.
Chechnya's President RamzanKadyrov has maintained a tough policy towards the rebels.
The stocky and bearded Kadyrov, who keeps tiger cubs for pets, commands the loyalty of thousands
of troops who have been rearmed and retrained by Russia. Human rights groups accuse him of
abuses and quashing freedom, accusations he has always ignored.
Russia says several hundred separatist combatants are still fighting, while independent analysts say
there are up to 2,000.
Bomb attacks in major Russian cities by extremists and rebels' widows have dried up, handing the
Kremlin a major PR success. But violence has increased in Chechnya's neighbours, Dagestan and
The 1999 election of Vladimir Putin as Russian president was primarily based on his promise to crack
down on the perpetrators of bomb attacks in 1999 that killed about 300 Russians, which Moscow
blames on Chechens.
In September 2004, Chechen rebels took a school in Beslan in southern Russia hostage. More than
320 people died in the siege, more than half of them children.
Russian special forces killed the alleged mastermind of the atrocity, warlord ShamilBasayev, in July
A dangerous place
Civilians in Chechnya no longer live in fear of being caught in crossfire, but analysts say Kadyrov's
security guards preside over a climate of intimidation.
Human Rights Watch says extra-judicial executions, forced disappearances and torture still take
place, and have spread to other regions of North Caucasus. Kadyrov denies any involvement in this
violence and says he will hunt down those responsible.
In July 2009, Russian human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, was found dead in Ingushetia with
two gunshot wounds to her head. She had been working in Chechnya, collecting data on human
Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta says the murder of one of its journalists, Anna Politkovskaya, in
Moscow in October 2006, was linked to Kadyrov. He denies any involvement. Politkovskaya won
international recognition for her work on Chechnya, exposing human rights abuses.
Many non-governmental organisations say it is a repressive climate for international and domestic
civil society, and getting worse.
Although international aid staff are returning to Chechnya, some relief agencies are based instead in
Vladikavkaz, capital of neighbouring North Ossetia.
The role of Islam
During Chechnya's de facto 1996-99 independence, some Chechen nationalists favoured introducing
Islamic sharia law and others advocated an independent secular state.
The Chechen government's adoption of some elements of Islamic law alienated many former allies.
The head of its sharia law court was Abdul-KhalimSaduleyev, who led the separatist movement for a
year until he was killed in June 2006.
Saduleyev was succeeded by warlord DokuUmarov.
Despite contravening Russia's constitution, the pro-Moscow Chechens currently in power have
brought in elements of religious law, enforcing headscarves for women and cracking down on
alcohol and gambling. Kadyrov also promotes polygamy.
The Chechen struggle has gained some support from Muslim sympathisers around the world and
Russian special forces regularly say they have killed Arab Islamists fighting in Chechnya.
Ingushetia and Dagestan
Security analysts say improved security in Chechnya has pushed violence into Ingushetia and
Dagestan, where bombings and shootouts have become more frequent.
Chechens have family, cultural and religious ties with Ingushetia, immediately to the west. Dagestan,
to the east, lies on the Caspian Sea and is also a predominantly Muslim republic.
Chechnya and Ingushetia were united in one region in Soviet times, but Ingushetia decided to break
with Chechnya in 1992, partly to avoid direct confrontation with Moscow as Chechnya wanted to
push for independence.
Ingushetia - a poor, mainly Muslim republic of about 400,000 people - was racked by bomb attacks
and murders in 2008 as federal forces and rebels fought for control.
There were street protests in the capital, Nazran, after the August 2008 death in police custody of
opposition leader MagomedYevloyev - owner of www.ingushetiya.ru, an opposition website which
both the Ingush president and Russian courts had tried to ban.
Towards the end of 2008 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev replaced the deeply unpopular Murat
Agricultural collapse ruins economy?
mbabwe has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. A large number of Zimbabweans in the
rural areas are dependent on food aid and the economy is in tatters.
It hasn't always been like this. Zimbabwe was once viewed as the breadbasket of southern Africa,
with some of the best health and education services in the region.
The causes of Zimbabwe's crisis are hotly contested.
Most agree that drought and the HIV/AIDS pandemic are partly to blame. A regional drought in the
mid-2000s caused massive crop failures across southern Africa. And over the past two decades,
HIV/AIDS has cut down the country's youngest and strongest people and, together with a massive
brain drain, has weakened Zimbabwe's economic and agricultural infrastructure.
But President Robert Mugabe's political opponents and many in the international community say it
is his controversial and often violent land reform programme that has wrecked the most havoc on
the country's once strong agricultural base.
Another drain on Zimbabwe's economy was its 1998-2002 involvement in the war in Democratic
Republic of Congo, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Hyperinflation spiralled in the 2000s - the International Monetary Fund estimated it peaked at 500
billion percent in December 2008. The meltdown drove an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans into
neighbouring countries. Those who remained faced food shortages, unemployment and crises in
both health and education.
Hundreds of thousands were displaced inside the country by the government's policies and actions,
and the majority are still uprooted today.
Following elections in 2008, a power-sharing government sworn in in 2009 managed to stabilise the
economy and brought inflation under control when it abandoned the Zimbabwean dollar in favour
of foreign currencies in 2009.
Supermarkets are well stocked again and fuel is no longer a rarity. But unemployment and poverty
are still rife, and many still cannot afford essentials.
International media and aid agency access to the country has improved, but obstacles remain.
The once-thriving health and education systems have been decimated.
Millions of Zimbabweans suffer chronic hunger, and many rely on food aid, according to the U.N.
World Food Programme (WFP).
About a third of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished, according to a nutrition
survey carried out by U.N., nongovernmental and government agencies and published in July 2010.
The government's food aid programme is run by the Grain Marketing Board which sells maize at
subsidised prices. The government says everyone has access to the programme.
However reports from human rights groups like the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP) say known
supporters of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party
are denied both government aid and food distributed by local charities. The MDC was the main
opposition until it joined the coalition government in 2009.
ZPP says it has found examples of names being removed from food registers and lists for donors.
In the lead-up to elections in 2005 and March 2008, Human Rights Watch said the government had
tried to buy votes with food and threatened to cut off aid to people who supported the opposition.
The international response is managed by WFP and, to a lesser extent, a group of non-governmental
organisations called the Consortium for Southern Africa Food Emergency (C-SAFE), which is funded
by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The previous government imposed tight controls on aid agencies, and assessing needs was difficult -
the government rarely revealed the size of the country's food stocks.
Although aid workers' ability to reach people has improved under the coalition government, working
in Zimbabwe is still not straightforward. Access is sometimes refused, and some agencies have
problems obtaining temporary employment permits. And in 2008, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe
froze aid agency funds. These have not been returned, affecting operations.
The country's health system - once hailed as one of the best in Africa - was decimated in the 2000s,
and has struggled to cope with the devastating AIDS epidemic, as well as regular outbreaks of
measles, cholera and typhoid.
These outbreaks are partly caused by the collapse of the sanitation and water systems which has
forced residents to drink from contaminated wells and streams.
A cholera outbreak that started in August 2008 killed over 4,000 people and left nearly 100,000 ill.
There were few medical professionals to cope with it - even the main government hospitals in the
capital Harare had been closed. The epidemic was officially declared over in July 2009.
Zimbabwe has historically had one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world, but has been hailed in
recent years for its success in reducing its infection rates.
The estimated HIV prevalence rate has fallen by more than half since 2001, when 34 percent of
people aged 15-49 had HIV/AIDS, according to UNAIDS, the lead U.N. agency fighting the global
This is thought to be partly due to preventative programmes changing sexual behaviour.
It's a success story that was eagerly promoted by Mugabe's government, which was one of the first
to take the pandemic seriously, setting up a National Aids Control Programme in 1987 to lead the
In 1999 Zimbabwe became the first country in the world to introduce a 3 percent levy on taxable
income in order to pay for preventative measures and treatment.
However, the government has been criticised by Human Rights Watch for restricting people's access
to treatment. Aid agencies say deaths caused by HIV/AIDS have created hundreds of thousands of
Migration and displacement
Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have left the country to seek a living abroad.
Hundreds of thousands more have been displaced within Zimbabwe as a result of government
policies and actions, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). They consist
of farm workers who lost their homes and jobs during land reforms, and people uprooted by
arbitrary evictions in Zimbabwe's towns and cities.
Up to 700,000 people were made homeless or lost their jobs in a 2005 crackdown on illegal traders
and shantytowns. Another 2.4 million people were affected in some way by the operation, according
to the United Nations.
Police bulldozed homes and market stalls in cities across the country in what the government said
was an attempt to flush out blackmarket traders and clean up cities. Mugabe said the operation was
part of a plan to build up to 1.2 million new housing units, and help small and medium-sized
But many of those who were displaced are still homeless, living in resettlement camps or struggling
to survive without food, safe water or sanitation.
Politically motivated violence and government campaigns against informal mine workers have also
The situation for aid agencies helping the displaced has improved since the previous government,
which did not acknowledge the existence of internal displacement in the country.
The coalition government has called for a national survey to assess the numbers and needs of the
displaced, and stated that all should have access to aid.
Despite this, humanitarian access has only improved slowly. It often has to be negotiated with
district administrators and local authorities on a case-by-case basis and - especially in cases of
people displaced as a result of new farm invasions - access has frequently been denied, says IDMC.
Zimbabwe is rich in diamonds, but many are smuggled out of the country illegally.
The country's finance minister, TendaiBiti, said in March 2010 that no revenue from the large
Marange diamond fields had reached state coffers. Human Rights Watch says there is so little proper
regulation of diamond mining that vast sums are leaving the country unaccounted for.
Mugabe's ZANU-PF political and military elite "are seeking to capture the country's diamond wealth
through a combination of state-sponsored violence and the legally questionable introduction of
opaque joint-venture companies", natural resources advocacy group Global Witness said in June
The army, which controls the Marange diamond fields, has inflicted appalling abuses on civilians and
the mines have been plagued with violence in recent years, says Global Witness.
Elections and violence
Until it joined a coalition government in 2009, the main opposition in Zimbabwe was the MDC. Its
leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, blamed Mugabe for the country's collapse. Mugabe in turn said
Tsvangirai was a puppet of the West.
The country's crisis deepened in March 2008 when the two men stood for president. Official results
showed Tsvangirai beat Mugabe, but not by enough votes to win outright, forcing a run-off.
Mugabe's ZANU-PF party also lost its parliamentary majority.
Violence escalated ahead of the presidential run-off vote in June. The MDC said Mugabe's party
deployed security forces, veterans of the independence struggle and youth militia in a campaign of
violence and dirty tricks to cripple Tsvangirai's chances of victory.
Scores of MDC supporters were killed and thousands more beaten up, according to the opposition.
Police detained Tsvangirai numerous times and arrested opposition legislators, officials, activists,
union leaders and journalists.
Tsvangirai pulled out of the race, saying a free and fair poll was impossible and that his supporters
would be risking their lives if they voted.
African countries joined Mugabe's Western critics in voicing anger over the bloodshed. The U.N.
Security Council also condemned the violence against opposition supporters, although it did not
explicitly blame Mugabe's government. Mugabe denied his supporters were responsible for the
The government banned foreign aid agencies from working ahead of the election, despite
widespread food shortages. The opposition and human rights groups accused the government of
using access to food as a weapon to try to sway the vote. The government for its part said the aid
groups were using food to persuade people to vote against Mugabe - an allegation they denied. The
ban was lifted in August 2008.
Mugabe, Tsvangirai and the leader of a breakaway MDC faction, Arthur Mutambara, eventually
signed a power-sharing deal in September. Talks over the allocation of key ministries were
deadlocked for months but a final agreement was reached in January 2009 under strong
Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister in February 2009, and Mutambara became deputy prime
minister. Mugabe remains president with control over security services. But he relinquished some
powers for the first time in nearly three decades of rule - including the health, education and finance
Tensions remain between ZANU-PF and MDC over power-sharing issues in the government, and
incidents of political violence continue.
Mugabe has said in the past that he wants to stay in power until he's sure it will be impossible to
reverse his seizures of white-owned farms.
Zimbabwe has a long history of white farmers forcing black farmers off the best agricultural land.
This began under British colonial rule and continued when a white minority government declared
unilateral independence from Britain in 1965.
Land was an important issue in the ensuing war for independence from white rule. And after a
British-brokered peace deal in 1979, the new black government led by Mugabe began a long-term
land redistribution programme.
But by 1999, some 11 million hectares (27 million acres) of the best land were still in the hands of
about 4,500 white commercial farmers, according to Human Rights Watch.
In 2000, Mugabe introduced new laws that gave the government greater powers to seize land
without compensating former owners. The government took over thousands of white-owned
commercial farms after backing often violent land invasions led by veterans of the country's 1970s
struggle against white rule.
By 2003, about 200,000 black farmers had been given new land, according to the government. Much
of the land ended up in the hands of Mugabe's allies and supporters. Few of the new owners had
farming experience or the capital to buy farming equipment.
Critics say the process has been poorly managed and underfunded. They say much of the land ended
up in the hands of Mugabe's allies and supporters, and many of the new owners lacked the money,
expertise or state support necessary to farm the land.
According to Refugees International, many of the new settlers were forced to turn to fishing, gold
panning and sex work to feed themselves.
Most of the wealthy white farmers who had produced the bulk of Zimbabwe's farm exports have left
Zimbabwe, taking with them knowledge and capital.
Zimbabwe's commercial agriculture plummeted, hitting exports and helping cause the food
shortages that have gripped the country since 2001.
The loss of export earnings meant Zimbabwe's gross domestic product shrank by almost a third
between 2000 and 2004.
Mugabe denied responsibility for the country's out-of-control inflation, saying the economy was
deliberately undermined by his domestic and foreign opponents in retaliation for his land reforms.
Why have millions of Colombians fled home?
Thousands die and tens of thousands are displaced every year by a conflict that started in the mid-
1960s as a Marxist-inspired uprising about inequality, land redistribution and poverty. It has
gradually turned into a seemingly interminable war that has disrupted life in rural villages and
remote indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, creating urban slums.
The main players are left-wing guerrillas funded by drug trafficking and to a lesser extent by
kidnapping, an army bent on cracking down on rebels and their supporters, cocaine cartels who run
their own kingdoms using jungle cover and are beyond the reach of overstretched security forces,
and successor groups to right-wing paramilitaries.
The paramilitary groups were originally formed to protect landowners from the rebels. The majority
had demobilised by 2006, but new bands emerged, made up of the remaining paramilitary fighters,
those who had disarmed but then returned to violence, and drug traffickers.
A hefty portion of Colombian cocaine ends up on the streets of the United States, and Washington
gives strong backing to Colombia's war on drugs - called Plan Colombia - fuelling controversy among
rights activists and environmentalists.
Although Colombian villagers want to remain neutral, they are sometimes forced to provide food,
lodging and information to armed groups.
At the height of the right-wing paramilitaries’ power in the 1980s and 1990s, villagers forced to help
guerrillas were labelled collaborators by paramilitary fighters and were often massacred.
The victims of violence
It is hard to pin down exactly how many people have fled rural violence or been forced off their land
by encroaching drug production, because many of the displaced are undocumented, living with
relatives or melting into shanty-towns on the edge of Colombia's cities.
The government estimates that 3.6 million Colombians have been displaced since 1997, according to
the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR). The Human Rights and Displacement Consultancy (CODHES)
calculates about 5.2 million have been uprooted since it began monitoring in 1985, according to
the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
Those most affected live in remote, rural areas along the Pacific coast, in central Colombia, and the
regions bordering Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador.
Tens of thousands of Colombians have fled to neighbouring countries - mainly Ecuador and
Venezuela, but also Brazil, Costa Rica and Panama, says UNHCR.
Human rights organisations say Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples - among the poorest
sectors of Colombian society - are disproportionately affected by displacement, with tens of
thousands driven from their homes each year by murder, rape and general violence.
The vast majority of the displaced are women and children.
Thousands of children have been recruited by armed groups – most by the left-wing Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and a few by paramilitaries. The government estimated there
were about 8,000 child soldiers in 2008. Aid agency War Child put the figure at 14,000 in 2007.
Children as young as 10 have been used as informants or to transport arms, before being trained as
fighters. And there have been reports of girls being subjected to rape and forced abortion, according
Some of the children are recruited from schools. Some are enticed by money and others are forcibly
recruited. The armed groups have tortured or killed children who resisted recruitment or attempted
to escape, the U.N. Secretary-General reported in March 2009.
The government's war on drugs and a stepped-up military offensive against the rebels has shifted
the conflict to more remote regions, so the plight of those who bear the brunt of the violence has
become almost invisible.
Drug traffickers and armed groups take cover in Colombia's vast jungles, endangering a number of
small, isolated indigenous peoples whose traditional way of life revolves around rivers and the
forest, and rarely brings them into contact with outsiders.
Armed groups have forced some tribes to grow coca for them, or forced them off their ancestral
lands at gunpoint. Other tribes have been caught up in crossfire between different armed groups, or
have chosen to flee their homes rather than fall under their control.
Indigenous peoples make up just 3 percent of the population, but live in most of the country's 32
departments. UNHCR has launched a campaign to protect 35 tribes, saying that the Nukak-Maku,
Guayaberos, Hitnu and Sicuani tribes are in critical danger.
Civilians in the countryside suffer a heavy toll from landmines, giving Colombia one of the world's
highest landmine casualty rates.
Marxist rebels began fighting to overthrow the Colombian government in the mid-1960s, pushing for
fairer and more equal land distribution. While the guerrillas have changed considerably since then,
the inequalities that originally fuelled revolt and attracted people to the cause remain much the
The country's elite is drawn primarily from descendants of the Spanish, and most of the land is
controlled by a few families and powerful business leaders. People of mixed heritage - indigenous,
African and European - tend to be less well off and live below the national poverty line, according
to U.N. Development Programme figures.
Despite undeniable inequalities in land and wealth distribution, the guerrillas command very little
popular support, especially in urban Colombia where most of the population lives. Their tactics -
which include kidnapping civilians, besieging towns, and bombing civilian targets - have alienated the
FARC is the largest guerrilla organisation, and wields considerable influence in the country's south
and east, in jungle border regions and drug trafficking routes along the Pacific coast.
Many youngsters in rural areas, where unemployment is high, voluntarily join FARC’s ranks every
But after U.S.-sponsored military crackdowns since the early 2000s, FARC has been significantly
weakened. Thousands have deserted its ranks, prompted by military pressure and government
rewards, and many of the group’s top commanders have been killed.
FARC’s fighting force has nearly halved to about 8,000 in the past decade, and it has been forced into
more isolated mountain and jungle regions.
FARC started as a group of Marxist revolutionaries in 1964, but became heavily involved in the drugs
trade to fund its activities, and grew fat on cocaine money in the 1990s. The rebels have built up ties
with drug gangs in some parts of the country and fought for control over key routes in other parts.
It has also obtained funds from kidnappings for ransom, but the number of abductions has
plummeted. According to government figures, 220 people were taken hostage in 2010, compared
with 3,572 people in 2000.
FARC was involved in failed peace talks during the government of former President Andres Pastrana.
In 1998, Pastrana agreed to pull troops out of a jungle area the size of Switzerland, but FARC used
the demilitarised zone to regroup and rearm. Pastrana broke off the talks in 2002, and ordered the
rebels out of the zone.
The group's lack of commitment to peace boosted public support for a purely military solution
promoted by President Alvaro Uribe who came to power in 2002, says International Crisis Group.
Both Uribe and President Juan Manuel Santos – who took over from Uribe in 2010 – have called for a
ceasefire, and said peace talks cannot take place until the rebels release all hostages, stop recruiting
child soldiers, end drug trafficking and stop attacks.
Santos has also rejected FARC demands that any future talks be based on the failed peace talks of
the 1990s. FARC has refused a ceasefire as a prerequisite for peace talks.
The first time FARC released high-profile kidnap victims was in early 2008 after Venezuelan-brokered
Ingrid Betancourt, captured while campaigning to be president in 2002, was freed by the Colombian
military in July 2008, along with 14 others. This deprived the rebels of one of their main bargaining
chips for obtaining the release of jailed rebels.
FARC has freed other hostages since then and, in February 2012, said it intended to abandon the
practice of ransom kidnappings.
But it did not say what would happen to the hundreds of civilians it was already holding. And it did
not say it would stop kidnapping for so-called political means to pressure the government.
The second main left-wing rebel group is the National Liberation Army (ELN). It is much smaller than
FARC, and uses drug trafficking to raise funds.
Its strongholds are primarily in northeastern Colombia near the Venezuelan border. It has attacked
oil installations in the past, but these attacks have decreased significantly in recent years. It has also
mainly stopped kidnapping people.
The ELN was formed by radical students and Catholic priests inspired by the Cuban revolution, and
was heavily influenced by Maoist ideologies and Liberation Theology, a radical form of Latin
American Catholicism which flourished in the 1960s but was heavily suppressed throughout the
In December 2009, the two left-wing groups announced they would stop fighting each other and
focus on attacking government forces.
In the mid-1960s, and again in the 1980s, landowners set up vigilante groups to protect themselves
and their property from the ELN and FARC. These evolved into brutal paramilitary organisations with
their own hierarchical structures, and also became heavily involved in the lucrative drugs trade.
Each paramilitary group controlled a different area or province, and their bases were in northern
and central Colombia.
In 1997, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) was formed as a loose confederation of
paramilitary groups, responsible for widespread human rights abuses.
In recent years, links between the paramilitaries and politicians, government officials and military
officers have emerged. In 2006, the so-called “para-politics” scandal was first exposed by a local
NGO, the national press, and former congressman Gustavo Petro, now mayor of the capital Bogota.
In 2008, 14 former paramilitary warlords were extradited to the United States on drug trafficking
charges, where they testified against military officers and politicians who had collaborated with
them and upheld their cause, which was to eliminate the rebels.
The AUC called a unilateral ceasefire in December 2002, and the head of each paramilitary group
decided if, when and where their fighters would demobilise. They began disarming in 2003, and
completed the process in 2006.
But their influence continues, and new groups have cropped up all over the country, taking over the
criminal networks previously run by the AUC leadership, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a 2010
The successor groups are made up of paramilitary fighters who never demobilised, those who
disarmed but then rejoined the conflict, drug traffickers and other criminals.
They regularly carry out massacres, killings, forced displacement, rape and extortion, and number
about 5,700, HRW said in its World Report 2012. They are actively recruiting new members.
Alvaro Uribe came to power in 2002 on a pledge to wipe out the insurgency. He launched the U.S.-
backed "Patriot Plan" in 2004 in a renewed crackdown on guerrillas and an attempt to break FARC's
strength in southern Colombia.
Uribe also promoted new legislation - the Justice and Peace Law - which came into force in July
2005, providing the legal framework for the demobilisation of combatants, help for them to make
the transition to civilian life, and compensation for victims of war crimes.
The government promised combatants freedom in civilian life or reduced jail sentences for crimes
such as murder and massacres, in return for confessions and the return of illegal goods, including
land and property.
The government's main aim with the law was to demobilise paramilitaries – about 30,000 handed in
their arms – but it also applies to rebel groups.
Despite this effort, the United Nations and many analysts say it did not end the influence of
paramilitary groups or dismantle their criminal and cocaine-smuggling operations.
Experts say that a key problem with the demobilisation process is that the government failed to
provide enough jobs and training for ex-fighters, and some of them rejoined the conflict.
The law also provides compensation for victims of war crimes, and led to the formation of Justice
and Peace Units overseen by the Attorney General’s office to try ex-militia members.
Semi-secret connections between the paramilitaries and the political establishment and armed
forces were thrust into the limelight when former militia leaders gave evidence about their high-
profile friends. Dozens of lawmakers and elected officials, including local governors and mayors,
have been imprisoned for conspiring with paramilitary groups.
A separate National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation was established to uncover the
truth regarding the death and disappearance of paramilitary victims, find ways for reparation and
pave the way for national reconciliation.
The Catholic Church has independently compiled a confidential database of human rights violations.
And the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is helping put together databases of
missing people, which it estimates number about 50,000.
Rights activists say the law is weak and does not provide enough incentive for ex-combatants to
confess. Few victims have received reparations and few paramilitary chiefs have been sentenced for
But, however flawed, most observers say the law is better than nothing.
President Santos has pushed through major reforms to address some of the structural issues of the
The June 2011 Victims' Rights and Land Restitution Law promises to compensate more than 3 million
victims of violence. They will receive help with housing and recovery of their lands taken by illegal
armed groups, as well as monetary compensation.
The government hopes the move will boost agriculture and ensure once idle lands are cultivated
Drugs and the United States
Colombia has been an important drug producer since the late 1970s, handling about 90 percent of
the cocaine that ends up in North America, according to the2011 International Narcotics Control
Board report, as well as a significant amount of heroine.
Indigenous communities in Colombia and neighbouring Bolivia and Peru have grown coca for
centuries. The coca leaves have some cultural significance, and they are chewed as a stimulant that
dulls hunger and decreases fatigue.
But most of Colombia's production is now linked to the cocaine industry. Coca is grown and
processed in clandestine jungle hideouts where environmentalists say toxic waste is dumped into
the ground and pollutes water sources. Once it is on the way to becoming crack or cocaine, it is a far
more potent drug and makes larger profits.
Drug traffickers are active in the areas bordering Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador, and have no
scruples about throwing villagers off their land in order to turn it into new drug sites.
Colombian drug cartels play a big role in the whole chain of production from growth to distribution,
although Mexican drug cartels now control many distribution routes from Colombia to Central
America and then into the United States.
Much of the trade is controlled by FARC and paramilitary successor groups.
Since the armed groups get their income from drugs, they are not very dependent on popular
support, and have little to gain from giving up their lucrative business.
The United States, which says Colombia is also a source of heroin, has weighed in heavily on the war
on drugs, giving Colombia billions of dollars in aid since 2000. But critics say the U.S. assistance beefs
up military operations which often have repressive effects for civilians.
A campaign to eradicate coca crops by aerial-spraying of heavy-duty chemicals has had mixed
results. The U.S. government says sprayed areas rarely come under cultivation the following year,
but its own research shows that drug traffickers are constantly expanding into new zones, cutting
down forests and displacing communities as they go.
Many analysts say drug traffickers have also expanded in Bolivia and Peru, where coca production is
on the rise.
Aid agencies and environmentalists are concerned about the impact of spraying on non-drug crops
and on people who live in the areas, which include national parks.
Ecuador has filed a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice in The Hague against Colombia for
damage caused by crop spraying to human health and the environment.
President Santos and other South American leaders are calling for a rethink of the global fight
"We have lost our best judges, our best politicians, our best journalists, our best policemen in this
fight against drugs and the problem's still there," Santos told the London Observer in November
In May 2012, Colombian lawmakers passed the first draft of a bill that would decriminalise the
cultivation of coca and marijuana, but still make trafficking illegal.
Those supporting the bill say it would lower the price of coca by flooding the market and creating
incentives for farmers to grow legal crops.
The Colombian government, however, has said the law would violate the country’s commitments to
international narcotics treaties.
Some experts say even decriminalising coca would not make it easy for farmers to switch to other
crops in some places because FARC has threatened to kill farmers who want to give up. And the
difficulty of transporting produce to market on jungle and mountain roads is a major challenge to
farmers who want to grow legal crops.
Violence plagues Colombians from all walks of life.
Although violent crime, including kidnapping, has fallen considerably since the early 2000s, it has not
Many of the targets are fairly wealthy, since Colombia is a middle-income country with a growing
middle class and an elite living in luxury with armed guards in gated neighbourhoods. Foreign oil
workers and business leaders are also targets.
But the poor are even more vulnerable, in a country where many thousands are murdered every
year. Most of the violent crime in Colombia’s main cities involves drug turf wars in impoverished
Human rights defenders and trade unionists are often threatened and attacked, Human Rights
More than 4,000 trade union leaders have been assassinated since 1986, according to the U.S. State
It is a risky country to be a journalist, too, with reporters frequently targeted and sometimes
murdered for exposing corruption, human rights issues and abuses of power.
Colombia has lived through periods of intense violence virtually since independence from Spain in
1819. The country's two main political parties - the Liberals and the Conservatives - were involved in
bloody conflicts after their formation in the mid-19th century, even though their ideologies were
Around 120,000 people died in "The War of a Thousand Days" between 1899 and 1903, and another
300,000 people were killed in another period of civil conflict between 1948 and 1957.
After this, the two parties agreed to alternate power to end the battles and banned all other parties.
The country now has a democratic system, but some analysts argue that Colombia has never known
real democracy or the rule of law, and that is one reason why it is so hard to achieve peace.