Caught in the Crossfire: Victims of Civil War Pour Into Squalid Refugee Camps

By the thousands, civilians caught in Colombia's war have been fleeing their villages and winding up in huge squatter camps like Nelson Mandela Barrio, outside Cartagena.

It is a sight President Clinton isn't seeing Wednesday during his visit to the charming Spanish-colonial city of nearby Cartagena: children walking barefoot in the mud past ramshackle huts, their bellies distended from malnutrition.

The squalid scene underscores the desperation millions of Colombian civilians face as the war widens and opposing sides gain strength.

While leftist guerrillas and rival right-wing paramilitary groups have gotten stronger by profiting from the narcotics trade, government security forces are receiving a huge injection of aid from Washington.

Human rights groups say civilians are being abused by all sides — which is apparent in listening to the horrific experiences of residents of Nelson Mandela Barrio, or neighborhood.

"A group of 10 armed men entered my house, tied us up and dragged away my son," said Juan de Dios Llorente in an interview in his hut, made of burlap sacks strung along branches and furnished only with two hammocks.

The gunmen were members of the country's biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, de Dios Llorente said, and they accused his son of being an informant for the army.

Three days later, a friend told de Dios Llorente that his son's body was on a nearby farm. De Dios Llorente retrieved the body. He had been shot three times in the back of the head.

Such is the climate of fear among Colombia's war victims that de Dios Llorente would only tell his story in the relative privacy of his shelter.

So far, death squads have not come to Nelson Mandela Barrio, many of whose residents are black and who respect the South African leader for his fight to free blacks from apartheid.

The squatter camp, located in a hilly green area a few miles outside Cartagena, is only five years old but already holds 45,000 people. Some 95 percent have been displaced by the war, aid workers say.

There is no system to care for the war refugees, and most are left to find food and shelter on their own. Only the most malnourished children are fed by humanitarian organizations.

The problem is mirrored throughout the country.

Nearly 2 million Colombians have fled their homes over the past 15 years.

The number of displaced people is growing annually — last year alone, 288,000 people were displaced, according to a private monitoring group, the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement.

Another 148,000 fled during the first six months of this year, the group reported, and officials say as many as 40,000 coca-growing farmers could be uprooted when a U.S.-backed anti-drug offensive gets underway in southern Colombia next year.

Benigna Blanco left her village of Maria la Baja two months ago, joining dozens of her neighbors in the northern town who had fled in previous months.

She finally joined the stream of refugees because her six children, the youngest eight years old, were becoming traumatized.

"Paramilitaries would come at night with lists of names in their hands and shoot people in their homes," Blanco said.

Misael Munoz, 34, surveyed the expanding Nelson Mandela Barrio, ankle deep in mud after a torrential rain.

Munoz left his hometown of Santa Marta along the Caribbean coast two months ago after heavily armed men stormed into a neighbor's house and shot three people dead.

"I don't know who the killers were, but even if I did I would not say," Munoz said. "I'm still very unnerved by what happened."

Munoz has now uprooted his whole life. As men nearby banged branches together with hammers to create frames for their shacks, he considered his situation. As grim as it was, he was alive.

"It is better to be here in the mud than in a pretty casket," he said.

De Dios Llorente, meanwhile, prays that eventually his village of Curulao will become safe enough for him to return.

"I want peace," he said. "It's the only thing I want. Peace."