Colombia's victims of conflict 'a priority' for the state

A woman cries next to the funerary urn with the remains of her relative disappeared during the Colombian civil war, in a ceremony in Medellin on 21 March, 2014 An estimated 220,000 people have been killed in Colombia's 50-year-long armed conflict

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Colombia says providing reparations for the victims of its armed conflict is "a priority" as the country marks the National Day of Memory and Solidarity.

The government body in charge of reparations - the Unit for Attention and Reparation of Victims - says it has compensated more than 360,000 people.

Director Paula Gaviria tells the BBC the victims are "at the centre" of the government's peace plan.

She says there are more than six million registered victims in total.

Paula Gaviria Paula Gaviria says looking after the victims is key to the peace process

Referring to the much derided demobilisation in 2005 of Colombia's rightwing paramilitaries - many of whom went on to join criminal gangs and continued terrorising the local population - Ms Gaviria says Colombia has learned from past mistakes that the victims have to have a voice in any peace process.

No truce

The government is currently holding peace talks with Colombia's largest left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), and has agreed to enter into talks with the second largest group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Colombia's armed conflict

  • An estimated 220,000 killed
  • More than 5 million internally displaced
  • 230,000 fled their homes in 2012
  • 6.2 million have registered under the Victims' Law
  • About 8,000 Farc rebels continue fighting
  • Another 1,500 ELN rebels also are involved in armed conflict

It has, however, refused to enter into a truce with either group and confrontations between the security forces and the rebels continue even as talks with the Farc are under way in Havana, Cuba.

Ms Gaviria tells the BBC during a visit to London that Colombia is unique in starting the process of victim reparation while the conflict is still raging.

Created as part of the Victims' Law passed by the Colombian Congress in 2011, the unit aims to compensate victims of the country's long-running civil conflict and return land to millions of displaced people.

Of the 6.2 million registered victims, more than five million are internally displaced.

While the state aims to return as many of them who so wish to their places of origin, this has not always been possible.

Their security cannot always be guaranteed, especially in areas where armed groups still hold sway.

Members of the Galvan-Diaz family in their home in Santa Paula's farm near Monteria on 28 March, 2014 Some farmers who lost their properties under pressure from rebels or paramilitaries have been able to return
A policeman stands guard in Santa Paula's farm near Monteria, Cordoba department on 28 March, 2014 But security remains a problem and hundreds of people have requested state protection
The Galvan-Diaz family prepares lunch at home in Santa Paula's farm near Monteria on 28 March, 2014 Colombia tops the list of internally displaced people according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre

What is more, with confrontations between the armed forces and rebels continuing, there have been new displacements.

'No time to lose'

Last week, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned that almost 700 people had been displaced by fighting in Guapi, in southern Cauca province in the space of a fortnight.

But Ms Gaviria maintains that even though people are still falling victim to the armed groups, starting the process of reparation and land restitution early was key to the peace process.

Coffee growers and their families, displaced by the conflict with Farc rebels, travel past a plantation in Serrania de Perija on 28 January, 2014 More than five million people have been internally displaced

"It's a chance we took," she says. "I don't think there was another way, the victims could not wait any longer," she says.

"I don't think the idea of holding peace talks would have had any traction if the Victims' Law hadn't been passed first," she adds.

According to Ms Gaviria, the Victims' Law and the creation of the Victims' Unit was a "down payment on peace", demonstrating the government's commitment to the victims of the armed conflict.

Figures released by the Victims' Unit suggest more than half of the internally displaced people have been granted humanitarian aid to help improve their conditions wherever they are currently living.

Risky conditions

Ms Gaviria says the state aims to fulfil its duty to protect all Colombians, especially those who have already been displaced.

But she thinks that while the conflict is still ongoing, the number of those who have returned to their homes cannot be used as an indicator for the success of the restitution programme.

"If the conditions for a safe return are not present, the state cannot send these people back."

Police officers stand guard during a government's land restitution process to farmers victims of forced displacement by armed conflict, on a farm in a rural area of Valencia, Cordoba department, Colombia on March 29, 2014 The security forces are on hand when the farmers return, but locals fear that once they leave, rebels and criminal gangs may return

But she says that while reparation payments and land restitution are an integral part of the programme, for many victims official recognition is often worth more than financial compensation.

She says that victims of sexual violence in particular often say they personally gain more from the psychological support the state offers.

"Many are also joining a programme which encourages victims of sexual violence to approach other victims and help them overcome that barrier of fear which prevents them from reporting what happened to them."

"Of course they also have a right to compensation payments, but many say they have found helping others more rewarding."

So far, more than 360,000 victims have been paid compensation, and Ms Gaviria thinks the state is on track for compensating all registered victims by 2021 - within the 10-year timeframe it had set itself when it passed the Victims' Law.

With the conflict not yet over, she admits more people could fall victim to the violence, thereby further driving up the numbers.

But Ms Gaviria is confident the political will to compensate all victims of the country's five-decades-long conflict is unshakeable.

"It's a policy for and of all Colombians, for and of all victims, and that's what will guarantee it's successful," she says.

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