This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
WESLEY MCMAHON: One of the things I think that we can offer refugees is, we’re finally giving them a home of their own again. And they’re free to do whatever they want to do. But that’s the thing about refugees—once they get here, they’re really not refugees anymore, they’re actually Americans in training.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, the plight of the world’s refugees.
KEITH PORTER: And the former United Nations High Commissioner on refugees assesses the global situation.
DR. SADKO OGATA: They should be respected as human beings and be helped. Because they do merit the future and they’re qualified to enjoy the future.
PORTER: Plus, the story of one Ethiopian refugee who is painting her way to a better life.
KEBEDECH TEKLEAB: When I paint I will allow myself to communicate with the feeling.
MCHUGH: Our special report on World Refugee Day—coming up next.
Listen to This Segment: MP3
PORTER: Common Ground is radio’s weekly program on world affairs. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. June 20th marks World Refugee Day, a day set aside by the international community to call attention to the plight of millions of refugees and internally displaced people around the globe.
PORTER: In honor of World Refugee Day, Common Ground is devoting our entire program this week to the wide range of experiences facing refugees—people who show enormous courage and perseverance through often horrible adversity.
MCHUGH: The United Nations Refugee Agency—UNHCR—estimates one out of every 300 people on Earth are currently uprooted by conflict, poverty, and famine. Nearly 75 percent are women and children. Charles Maynes offers this portrait of one Afghan family’s journey.
[The sound of a family at an airport terminal, with someone saying, stating, “There they are. Here we go.”]
MAYNES: Walking cautiously down the gangway at Des Moines International Airport, Zara Amiri and her three sons emerge to greetings of “Salam,” “Glad you made it,” and of course, “Welcome to Iowa.” For Zara, 15-yearr-old Naqib, and his younger brothers Rafi and Rabi, this evening marks the end of a four-day trek that has taken them through the likes of Islamabad, Dubai, Dublin, and Chicago. Yet, in some ways, the journey that brought them here began what must seem for them a lifetime ago.
[The sound of ethnic Afghan music.]
MAYNES: Zara and her children are refugees, people jettisoned from their homeland of Afghanistan, and yet whose lives bitterly mirror the recent tragedies of that country. Zara’s husband Ishaq was a victim of the Afghan civil war; killed by an errant missile while at work in his mechanic’s shop in Kabul in 1993. And as ethnic Tajiks, Zara and her family faced increasing levels of harassment and persecution when the Pashtun-led Taliban came to power three years later. Moreover, as a woman and single mother living under the Taliban, Zara says she learned firsthand of the strict Islamic code preferred by the new rulers.
ZARA: [summarized by a translator] She says that her son was sick, so she took him to the hospital. So when she was talking, talking to the doctor she just, you know, uncovered her face. So that she didn’t see that there was a Talib in the back of her. So when the Talib see that, you know, her face uncovered, he started beating her. So she said that he kicked a lot and she didn’t know what happened because she just lay down and….
MAYNES: And went unconscious?
ZARA: [summarized by a translator] Yeah. Went unconscious.
MAYNES: Not long thereafter, Zara departed with her sons for neighboring Pakistan, where the family took up life in a UN refugee camp. An accomplished seamstress, Zara found a job in a textile sweatshop working 12 to 15 hours a day. Naqib, the oldest son, then just 10, sold shoes on the street. Daily life was a challenge, says Zara. But then she got word of a possible way out.
ZARA: [summarized by a translator] She said that she had worked at a factory. Some people were working there and they informed her that the UN accepting the form for widows.
MAYNES: Three years and four interviews later, Zara at last heard the news—her application had been approved. She and her sons were headed to America.
WANG LEE: Okay, now, we go by orientation.
MAYNES: At Des Moines’ Refugee Cooperative Ministry, case manager Wang Lee takes these newest of Iowans through a dizzying introduction to American life.
MR. LEE: But in the United States you live in a house you need to pay money. Electricity, you need to pay; water, you need to pay; everything we have to adjust our income, money, to pay rent.
MAYNES: Mr. Lee knows well the challenges that face Zara’s family. As a refugee arriving to Iowa from Laos in the late 1970’s, Mr. Lee says he too struggled to adapt to his new home.
MR. LEEL: I know about the refugee need a lot. I know what they need a lot. Because the refugee, they came here, they like a little bird. They broke from the egg, they cannot fly. They cannot find something to eat.
MAYNES: The refugee’s road to self-sufficiency is, by any standard, a daunting one. Think of it as boot camp Americana. Upon arrival, organizations like the Refugee Cooperative Ministry offer 120 days of financial support for housing and utilities. During that time the refugee must find a job, learn English, and of course, adapt. It’s a process not for the meek, and, also, not possible without the support of a network of outside volunteers.
BECKY BURROWS: For all of us that have been involved, it’s just been fascinating. It’s so much fun. I mean, you just…
MAYNES: Becky Burrows coordinates sponsorship of Zara and her family for Christ the King Church in Des Moines. Together with other church members, she’s helped Zara’s family with everything from booster shots and enrolling in school to attending mosque, shopping, and repairing bicycles. It’s rewarding and time consuming work says Burrows, where hand signals and pantomime cross the cultural divide and occasionally reveal the chasm.
BURROWS: Cathy took the boys shopping and at the Hy-Vee over there near them, you know how you buy those plastic lemons and limes? Well, over there they’re like in a kind of a woven basket thing that’s green or yellow—it looks like a grenade. And so when they walked in the store that day and the boys saw those, they picked it up and like, pulled the pin with their teeth, like they were going to throw it like it was a grenade. Our kids wouldn’t think about that being a grenade, ’cause that’s not in their experience, you know. But to these kids, you know, they were on the streets. [laughing] They know what a grenade look like, you know. And Cathy’s like “No, no. In America, no grenade. No grenade” You know. And they weren’t going to throw them. But, you know, they were pretending, doing their little pantomiming kind of thing. You think, their whole experience of life is so different than…we just can’t even imagine. You just can’t fathom.
MAYNES: Despite everything, Zara’s family counts among the lucky. Of the world’s estimated 19-plus million refugees, just one percent are admitted to third countries for resettlement. Moreover, the numbers accepted in the US have dwindled dramatically in the wake of September 11th, 2001, and the subsequent changes in the security requirements. In 2002, US refugee admissions fell to fewer than 30,000 persons, and of the 70,000 refugees approved for entry into the US by President Bush this year, first quarter figures show admittance rates again far off pace. Critics of the trend say, should it continue, the US threatens to further punish those already victimized by war, famine, and drought. Moreover, says Wesley McMahon of the Des Moines Refugee Cooperative Ministry, reneging on a pledge to accept refugees contradicts that loftiest of American of ideals—the belief in starting anew.
WESLEY MCMAHON: We’re finally giving them a home of their own again. A place they can call their own, their 1,000 square feet in the world that has a door on it and a key that they have. And they’re free to do whatever they want to do. But that’s the thing about refugees—once they get here, they’re really not refugees anymore, they’re actually Americans in training.
MAYNES: In Zara’s case, there is perhaps a choice. Yet she says despite missing her parents and extended family in Afghanistan, she’s now drawn to the peace that comes with knowing her children are safe from war, landmines, and as much as possible, the unpredictable.
ZARA: [as summarized via a translator] She says that the people who are going back to their country, that’s okay. But she doesn’t want to go back to their country because, because of her, you know, her kids. They are going to school, and school is very good in the United States. So, that’s the only reason she’s not going back to Afghanistan. But she says that’s her homeland. She will return one day, but she doesn’t know when.
[The sound of a folk ballad about refugees in Iowa.]
MAYNES: This is the refugee and immigrants refrain—Germans, Slovaks, Hmong, and Latino—all at one point newcomers to Iowa. They gradually became an integral part of its landscape, towns, and cities. Indeed, unless you look close, you may not notice them at all.
[The sound of a folk ballad about refugees in Iowa.]
MAYNES: For Common Ground, I’m Charles Maynes.
MCHUGH: US refugee policy, next on Common Ground.
Listen to This Segment: MP3
MCHUGH: The United States is often called a nation of immigrants, as millions have crossed oceans to seek a better life for themselves and their families here in America. But the US is also a nation of refugees, from the Pilgrims and Huguenots fleeing religious persecution during the colonial era, to the Cubans settling in south Florida in the ’60s, and Hmong leaving Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War era. Despite the history of open arms, the US is criticized for not being welcoming enough, even as the international refugee crises continue. Our special World Refugee Day coverage continues with Priscilla Huff.
US SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DONALD RUMSFELD: The other thing that didn’t happen was masses of refugees and internally displaced people. And another thing that didn’t happen was a humanitarian disaster.
PATRICIA HUFF: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is happy to report the expected Iraqi refugee crisis of 2003 did not materialize. Analysts agree, that’s thanks to a fairly quick military campaign. They’re hoping reconstruction in Iraq gains momentum, partly because refugee crises continue in other parts of the world.
KEN BACON: Clearly, the biggest crises are in Africa, where you still have in Sudan there are probably about four million displaced people.
HUFF: Ken Bacon, with Refugees International, says there are actually two types of people seeking refuge.
BACON: A refugee technically is someone who leaves his country, has been driven from his or her country to another country. And of those there are about 15 million refugees in the world who have been driven from their countries to another country. There are in addition, 22 million internally displaced people.
HUFF: Those are people who have left their hometowns, often after civil war or other disruptions. Unlike the nations whose political situations put themselves in the headlines—both for their unrest and the associated problem of displaced citizens—the United States is in a position to provide help and a safe haven. And the US has a good track record helping refugees, says Professor Susan Martin of Georgetown University.
PROFESSOR SUSAN MARTIN: The US is by far the largest donor and supporter of assistance to refugees. The problem though, is there is far more assistance needed than the sum total of international donors have been willing to support.
HUFF: The US provides that help often in the form of material things—tents, blankets, food, medical supplies. These can help tide over the estimated 40 million refugees and internally displaced persons globally, until they can return in safety to their homes. And the US provides about one-quarter of the budget for the best-known first responders, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. But, sometimes, refugees can’t go home and a new home must be found. The State Department sets a number of slots provided for true asylum seekers each year, a portion of the estimated 650,000 people who immigrated to the United States in 2001. Ken Bacon.
BACON: That number is relatively small. I wish it were higher, but the number actually is set by the government. Last year, unfortunately, we took only about 28,000.
HUFF: As part of Operation Liberty Shield, the Homeland Security initiative, the US has tightened requirements on who can seek refuge in the United States. Professor Susan Martin doesn’t mince words about the impact of these new policies.
MARTIN: Since September 11th, though, the United States resettlement program is in an almost complete shambles. It’s somewhat understandable. If you look at the state sponsors of terrorism, places like Afghanistan prior to the invasion, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq prior to the invasion, Iran, etcetera, these are also the principle producers of refugees. And so there is a real security concern as to whether somebody who is applying for admission to the US is a vulnerable refugee or a terrorist in disguise.
HUFF: The Bush administration insists it must be much more careful in admitting people to the US, which is why people from 33 countries can now find themselves detained until it can be determined they are ,who they say they are. Refugee advocates agree, that’s a problem. Susan Martin.
MARTIN: The bona fide refugee probably has destroyed his documents or never had any documents, may in fact be a refugee because the government has it out for him and is trying to thwart any kind of future and therefore won’t provide documentation.
HUFF: Advocates criticize the tougher programs as hypocritical. On one hand, the Bush administration extols freedom and democracy, while it threatens to imprison the very people who are fleeing repressive and dangerous regimes. Ken Bacon with Refugees International.
BACON: I think that when we have people who are expelled from their countries because they’ve been fighting for democracy, we should give those people a port in the storm. We should allow them to resettle in the United States if they can’t go home.
HUFF: While both the United States and the refugees themselves have benefited from finding new lives in America, most refugees and internally displaced people just want to return to their homes, jobs, and families. The real solutions to the ongoing global refugee crisis lie in stopping the conflicts which cause the people to flee their homes. For Common Ground, I’m Priscilla Huff.
Listen to This Segment: MP3
PORTER: As the world marks World Refugee Day 2003, the United Nations estimates there are nearly 20 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide. Dr. Sadko Ogata was responsible for many of these people for nine years while she served as the UN high commissioner for refugees. Dr. Ogata retired from the position in 2000. She currently works with the Ford Foundation, and serves as Japan’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Assistance. She tells Common Ground‘s Cliff Brockman everyone was overwhelmed by the quick return of Afghan refugees following the US-led war against the Taliban.
DR. SADKO OGATA: The government was being set up and the capacity, administrative capacity, was very limited. But international agencies were there and it was a return of refugees first of all from Pakistan headed back to their home. And then some from Iran. They are the two major countries that hosted Afghan refugees. And the return process is a good thing. Because it is showing that the refugees are showing that they want to be along the peace process. People coming back is one step for peace. But it was a big operation and when they come back they have to be given some kind of ways of settling down, which is helping them. Shelter. Usually UNHCR will be giving them food and certain livelihood for the first few months. And this kind of assistance has been given. But the most important thing is to absorb them into the Afghan communities.
BROCKMAN: In Iraq before the war there were estimates of maybe as many as a half million or more refugees that might be there because of the war. What’s happened there?
DR. OGATA: The number of refugees is minimal. See, refugees fled Iraq in ’91. Many of them went to Iran and also they went towards Turkey; most of them didn’t quite make it to Turkey, were brought back to their own homes in northern Iraq. But the refugees fleeing, the cause would be either enormous suppression by the government, which is what happened in ’91 and there was the uprising of the Shiites and also of the Kurds, too. And the government suppressed them with violence and this is why they fled. The other cause for refugee flight would probably be internal fighting. So far, neither has happened. And this is why I think the refugees have not come out of Iraq.
BROCKMAN: You’ve been critical of Japan, your own country, for its refugee policies. The government accepted less than 100 refugees during a 10-year period that ended in 2001. Why was that?
DR. OGATA: Asylum seekers, on the basis of the Refugee Convention, they are the ones who are examined one by one—very slow process—and there were times when there were only one or two a year who were recognized. Very often there were rigid legal matters like you have to appeal for asylum within six months after your arrival; you have to have adequate information to show what their persecution situation was. And I would say the process was neither open nor flexible. Now, step by step, there is improvement in the sense of examining a bit more positively, flexibly. The six-month wait period has been lifted. This was a major recent breakthrough. At the same time, there were those whose claim could not be established, at the same time there were humanitarian reasons not to send them back. So there are some additional recognition on the basis of humanitarian considerations.
I don’t think Japan will ever be a major asylum receiving country. Because first of all, it’s not a migration receiving country. And most refugees or asylum seekers go where there are communities of their own people. And that is also limited, too. But I don’t think it’s the numbers so much as the process that I’d like to see much more open and convincing.
BROCKMAN: What lessons have been learned in Afghanistan, Iraq, other countries, regarding refugees, that might be applied in the future?
DR. OGATA: If there is a major cause for flight, the obligation of the neighboring states is not to send them back. This is a very fundamental principle of refugee protection. Now, I would say that the countries in the region, whether it was Iran or Pakistan, did receive them, in enormous numbers. Afghan refugees, when I became High Commissioner in ’91, there were more than six million. Now, I don’t know exactly how many but there are still maybe more than a million left, which, who have not come back yet. But it is very difficult to maintain the refugee, help the refugees at that scale for a long time. So in that sense I think the international community have to find solutions for those people and also not to forget that these people exist. Nor to let those hosting countries just suffer the burden themselves.
BROCKMAN: Is there a final message you might have for our listeners on World Refugee Day 2003?
DR. OGATA: First of all, I think you should have compassion for refugees. But also, not charity. They should be respected as human beings and be helped. Because they do merit the future and they’re qualified to enjoy the future.
BROCKMAN: Sadko Ogata is the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees. For Common Ground, I’m Cliff Brockman.
Listen to This Segment: MP3
MCHUGH: For refugees, life is a journey, in geographic terms as well as metaphorical ones. For Kebedech Tekleab that’s especially true. Her journey began with her escape from the chaos of the Ethiopian revolution; it then led her through a Somalian labor camp; and ended finally on the walls of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Judith Smelser has her story.
[The sound of a tour through an art museum, being given by Curator Elizabeth Harney.]
ELIZABETH HARNEY: Kebedech was trained at the School of Fine Arts in Addis Ababa and then during the revolution in the 1970s she fled Ethiopia and was interned in a Somalian labor camp for ten years.
SMELSER: As visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art gaze at paintings by Kebedech Tekleab, Contemporary Art Curator Elizabeth Harney gives a thumbnail sketch of the artist’s life.
ELIZABETH HARNEY: [giving the tour] And much of her work deals with the experiences that many around the world have had to deal with in what happens often with instances of exile and the terror of inter-ethnic warfare and political upheaval and so forth.
SMELSER: Some of Tekleaub’s paintings are on display at the museum as part of an exhibition of works by contemporary artists from the Ethiopian Diaspora. The exhibit itself examines themes of migration and exile, conditions each of the artists in the show has experienced, but perhaps none more poignantly than Tekleaub. After attending a preview of the exhibition, she explains why she left her home in Ethiopia. She says it was virtually impossible for her to stay because she was part of a student movement that opposed the military junta that took over the country in the late 1970s.
KEBEDECH TEKLEAB: So many of young peoples during that time were incarcerated, and most of them were killed, and the rest who actually considered themselves lucky deserted the country. So, I was with that group. That’s how, you know, I left Ethiopia.
SMELSER: But her luck ran out when she and her friends, who were fleeing together, got caught up in a border conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia. Somali fighters captured the group and took them to a labor camp, where Tekleaub stayed for nearly a decade.
TEKLEAB: This was a very strict concentration camp. There was no communication with the outside world. Inside the camp, there was nutritional problem, there was health problem, sanitation problem, and also the psychological impact of being imprisoned so long.
SMELSER: But two decades later, Tekleaub is a cheerful, confident woman and an accomplished artist. Dressed in bright blue, she smiles and laughs with her colleagues at the museum, showing no visible scars from her traumatic experience. For that, she credits the support of family and friends, but also the ability to release her feelings through her art.
TEKLEAB: One thing that I do is that I don’t shy away from my not-pleasant enough memories. Instead I want to deal with them.
SMELSER: Her work deals not just with her own experiences but with those of others who have, as she says, been victimized by other human beings. Her works here in the Smithsonian don’t evoke a sense of anger, though. Their colors are muted and their lines are soft, but the subject matter is often disturbing. One piece, called “Shackled” depicts the soft outlines of human feet and other dismembered body parts gently intertwined together.
TEKLEAB: First inspiration could be my own imprisonment, but this is beyond that. This is about the condition of people with that kind of situation. It could be physical or psychological.
SMELSER: Tekleaub says she reads a lot and pays attention to what’s going on in the world around her, and that those ideas inform and influence her art at least as much as her own experience. That’s evidenced by another of her paintings entitled “The River in Rwanda,” about the violent genocide of 800,000 people there in 1994.
TEKLEAB: Actually, that morning, I was ready to paint something else. And I primed a canvas, and I waited until it dries off. And I was watching TV, and the first image that I saw on the screen was this horrible image of human bodies mutilated and floating in the river. Then I started immediately, I started working on the series of the Rwanda situation.
SMELSER: As it turned out, Kebedech Tekleaub did become one of the lucky ones. After her escape from Ethiopia and her dark years in the Somalian camp, she joined family members who’d since moved to the United States. She resumed her artistic studies, which had been broken off by the violent upheaval in Ethiopia a decade before. Now she’s recognized as an important contemporary African artist, and in that position, she’s able to give a voice to refugees and prisoners around the world who haven’t been quite so lucky. For Common Ground, I’m Judith Smelser in Washington.
PORTER: This is Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.
KEITH PORTER: I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Coming up this half hour on Common Ground, we continue our special World Refugee Day coverage with a profile of Colombia’s refugees living in Ecuador.
SALAZAR: [via a translator] We live along the border. There’s no control. The Colombians can do whatever they want and the Ecuadoran army has no impact. We have no security.
MCHUGH: Plus, a special look at the world’s youngest refugees.
Listen to This Segment: MP3
PORTER: Colombia is one of the world’s forgotten hot spots. Peace talks have failed to end years of conflict between government troops and rebel factions. As a result, thousands of refugees are stuck in Ecuador. Reese Erlich reports the fighting doesn’t stop at the Colombian border.
[The sound of a car door opening and car driving away]
ERLICH: Nueva Loja is only a few miles down a two-lane road from Colombia, and refugees from that war-torn country arrive most every day. The Catholic Church puts them up at a hostel in the center of Nueva Loja.
[The sound of refugees talking]
ERLICH: Colombian refugees here say the right-wing paramilitaries control the countryside where they used to live. The paramilitaries are allied with local landlords and sectors of the Colombian military. Raul and Marta, a married couple who asked that their real names not be used, described what happened in their small Colombian village just three miles from the Ecuadoran border.
RAUL: [via a translator] For 15 days before we left there was fighting between the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. The paramilitaries had heavier weapons. Some heavily armed men showed up in our village. They brought us all together. They came to my house where my wife and children were. They terrorized us. At about 9 in the morning they took us. By 11:45 a.m. we were in a local soccer field. There were about 45 of us at this forced meeting. They told us that because we lived in this area, we were supporters of the guerrillas. But now, they said, this zone was controlled by the government’s self defense forces.
[Latin American guitar music]
RAUL: [via a translator] We didn’t have any choice because the paramilitaries had guns. They would kill civilians. They took 6 of the 45 people gathered and shot them, just 20 yards away. Of course we feared for our lives. They are waging war against civilians. They’re the ones responsible for the violence. We decided to emigrate to another country. The closest country was here in Ecuador. We left our homeland on two hours notice.
MARTA: [via a translator] Now there’s no one at our farm. No one. We lost everything: the animals, the furniture, everything. We only came over the border with our two children.
[Latin American guitar music]
ERLICH: I spoke with another refugee who also asked that her real name not be used. We’ll call her Carmen. She lived in a different small village close to the Ecuadoran border. Under the US-backed Plan Colombia, thousands of acres of land are sprayed in an attempt to wipe out cocaine producing coca crops. US authorities claim the spraying doesn’t harm people. But Colombian farmers such as Carmen tell a very different story.
Carmen: [via a translator] We grew yucca and various other agricultural products. The aerial spraying killed a lot of plants. There was nothing to eat. We didn’t have anything. The earth didn’t produce. Animals died. A friend of mine’s son even died. When the planes came overhead spraying, he was hit directly by the liquid. He died from it.
[Latin American guitar music]
[Latin American guitar music]
ERLICH: The Catholic Church in Nueva Loja is doing a lot of work to deal with the influx of thousands of refugees all along the border. The church’s Pastoral Assistance Service Office is often the first stop for recent refugees.
[The sound of a church office, with people talking.]
ERLICH: Sister Carmen Rosa Perez oversees a bustling office, full of staff and volunteers.
CARMEN ROSA PEREZ: [via a translator] Refugees come to the church office and we assist them. They are victims of the violence resulting from Plan Colombia. We give them food and basic health services. They can see doctors and go to the hospital. If necessary we send them to a hospital in Quito. We also give them what we call productive packets. These are kits that help people become street vendors, raise animals, or do other kinds of self-employed work. We don’t want people to rely on the Church assistance programs permanently. We also help with psychological counseling, particularly for women.
ERLICH: Sister Carmen says the refugees have a hard time because they are competing for jobs with Ecuadorans, who are also very poor here in Sucumbios province.
Sister Carmen: [via a translator] This province is mostly ignored by the central government. The Amazonian provinces are forgotten. We are rich in oil resources, but ironically, we are abandoned by the government. For example, we don’t really have a hospital. Our hospital is more like a big clinic. Residents don’t have access to decent health care because it’s not provided by the provincial government. The private clinics are expensive and it’s even more expensive to leave for treatment in Quito. So we make due with what we have.
ERLICH: Sucumbios, and neighboring Orellana province, are the poorest in Ecuador, despite being the heart of the country’s oil drilling industry. In February, unions, indigenous groups, and local politicians organized an 11-day work stoppage to protest lack of basic government services and construction of a new oil pipeline, which will hurt the environment. During the general strike—by coincidence—the peace process also broke down in Colombia. The Colombian military invaded rebel held areas and widespread fighting broke out. So the border has been hit by a double whammy; economic instability in Ecuador plus civil war next door. Maximo Abad is mayor of Nueva Loja, the capital of Sucumbios Province. I asked him what’s been the impact of the war on his province.
Maximo Abad: [via a translator] [Latin American guitar music] Very grave. Tourism from Ecuadorans and foreigners has dropped off to nothing. It’s practically a 100 percent drop. The foreigners and Ecuadorans are afraid because the war is so close by. Colombians’ demand for our agricultural supplies has diminished. They used to buy all kinds of products. Because we now use the US dollar as our currency, all of our goods are much more expensive relative to the Colombian currency. So they can’t afford to buy. Businessmen here really feel it, and tourism has really gone down.
[The sound of people walking around an office.]
ERLICH: The renewed war in Colombia has also hit the indigenous communities hard. About one-quarter of all Ecuadoran are Indians. The Kichwas are the largest single indigenous group, and among the poorest. Anselmo Salazar is a leader of the Kichwas in Nueva Loja. He says refugees are coming across the border. But so are guerrillas and paramilitaries. Sometimes the fighting spreads as each side murders the other in the streets of Nueva Loja.
SALAZAR: [via a translator] It’s been difficult since the breakdown in the dialogue between the government and guerrillas. A lot of Colombians have killed each other here in Ecuador. It’s a continuation of the war in Colombia. The Ecuadoran commander of the armed forces says everything is under control. It’s a lie. We live along the border. There’s no control. The Colombians can do whatever they want and the Ecuadoran army has no impact. We have no security.
ERLICH: Marta says she and her fellow refugees try to stay out of the fighting. But everyone knows it’s going on.
MARTA: [via a translator] In reality, those armed groups operate here; the paramilitaries and the guerrillas. As a refugee, I’m not affiliated with either side. More than 200 people have died this year. People are murdered all the time by the groups, but no one knows why. Sometimes it’s one group; sometimes another. But it’s the same problem.
[The sound of cocks crowing, and street sounds.]
ERLICH: Out on the streets of Nueva Loja, the Colombian refugees try to survive as best they can. Many have been able to rent small homes. And the Catholic Church has helped them become street vendors, selling candies or cigarettes. Raul, the refugee we met earlier, now works as a street vendor.
RAUL: [via a translator] Unfortunately in my first days working as a vendor working in the streets, the Ecuadorans asked, “What are you doing here?” They didn’t want me. They thought I would do bad things. I told them “No, I’m a peaceful man. I have official government permission to work.” But almost everyone didn’t like me because I was Colombian.
[The sound of cocks crowing, and street sounds.]
RAUL: [via a translator] It’s very hard to get work. First of all we had no money. We have no family support network. There are some people who are kind. But others don’t want the Colombians here. If they know you’re Colombian, they close their doors. They call us all kinds of names: guerrillas, paramilitaries, murderers, terrorists, rapists.
ERLICH: Carmen agrees.
CARMEN: [via a translator] All they have to do is see our faces or listen to our accents and they know we’re Colombian. My country is known for its violence. Unfortunately, we’re all known for that. They all see us as the same.
ERLICH: Carmen says Colombian refugees are caught in a strange contradiction. In the days before the dollarization of the Ecuadoran economy and before the Colombian civil war stepped up, some Colombians came across the border and spent freely. For them, Ecuador was full of bargains. The refugees don’t have any money, but the Ecuadorans haven’t adjusted to the new reality, says Carmen.
CARMEN: [via a translator] People here still think we have money. So they charge Colombians double for everything. Before, Colombians used to come here when the economy was better and buy a lot of things. They would pay higher prices. So they charge us a lot more. But the situation is different for us. We don’t have any money.
[Erlich questions Raul in Spanish]
ERLICH: I asked Raul if the situation was better or worse since last February when the Colombian peace process broke down.
RAUL: [via a translator] Worse. The guerrillas say Colombia will be a second Vietnam, don’t they? As small farmers we don’t have opportunities for anything. If you knew certain people who are suspected by the paramilitaries, you are in danger. We need help. Some people can’t gain official refugee status. You have to prove you face political persecution. But it’s hard to prove repression by the militaries or the guerrillas. At lot of refugees are here, but the Ecuadoran government says they’re not refugees. They need documents showing they are refugees in order to get legal work. I hope international agencies will help us.
[The sounds of a busy office.]
ERLICH: Back at the office of Kichwa leader Anselmo Salazar, he says the international community needs to pay a lot more attention to Ecuador. It’s not just the war that is coming across the border.
SALAZAR: [via a translator] There are some Ecuadoran farmers who accept deals from Colombian drug dealers to plant coca. The dealers agree to buy up the coca later at very high prices because they make a lot of profits from selling the cocaine. It’s not on a big scale yet. The army has been able to control it. Small farmers in Colombia have been doing this for years. Now it’s starting in Ecuador.
ERLICH: Years ago when Peruvian authorities cracked down on the drug cartels in their country, the drug dealers simply crossed the border and encouraged farmers in neighboring Bolivia to grow coca. That was the beginning of the drug trade in Bolivia, which continues as a major problem today. Ecuadorans worry that the same process will develop in their country as a result of Plan Colombia.
[The sound of Latin American music.]
ERLICH: For Common Ground, I’m Reese Erlich in Nueva Loja, along the Ecuador/Colombia border.
[The sound of Latin American music.]
PORTER: Coming up next, children of war.
MCHUGH: You’re listening to Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.
Listen to This Segment: MP3
MCHUGH: Displacement is a universal symptom of war anywhere in the world. Fighting in central Africa has forced more than four million people out of their homes. In southeastern Europe, more than one million people fled the 1999 war in Kosovo. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians spent more than a decade in refugee camps along the Thai border and tens of thousands still remain. In almost every case, half of these refugees are children. In fact, the UN has dedicated World Refugee Day 2003 to refugee youth. Keith and I recently visited a refugee camp and found that for kids, fleeing war can be as dangerous as war itself.
[The sound of jet aircraft and machine gun fire.]
IGBALE PAQARIZI: [via a translator] We were running toward the border. A Serbian policeman stopped us.
PORTER: In 1999, Igbale Paqarizi, an ethnic Albanian, grabbed her son and daughter and fled the war in Kosovo.
IGBALE PAQARIZI: [via a translator] First they burned my daughter’s face. She started crying, “Mother!” I just told her, “Keep silent! Keep silent!” Her face was covered with blood. They hit my son in the stomach and he fell to the ground. I was just saying, “Oh, my god! Then they said, “Take the children, start walking, don’t look back.” So we walked. I was expecting “Bam! Bam!,” that they would kill the kids and me. But with God’s grace we were saved.
PORTER: Many families like these flee the horrors of war only to end up in refugee camps. Even the best of these camps offer cold comfort to children in crisis situations.
PATRICK FRUCHET: A refugee camp can be a very dangerous place. You’re putting an enormous number of people in very close proximity and these are people who are tired, who have often become ill. You know, there are all sorts of health risks in a refugee camp situation.
PORTER: Patrick Fruchet has worked for UNICEF—the United Nations Children’s Fund—in a number of conflict zones, most recently Kosovo, where thousands of children displaced by the 1999 war still suffer in camps like this one, called “Plementina,” just outside of Pristina.
[The sound of children running and playing.]
PORTER: Many of these children, especially Serbs and Roma, also known as Gypsies—are afraid to leave because they fear ethnic attacks. Enver Krasniqi is the American Refugee Committee field agent in charge of this camp.
ENVER KRASNIQI: I will tell you when, for children it’s a difficult life here in the camp. Because only some people of the camp, they are free to move, because some of them they are scared to go like outside to our village or Pristina or some. But for children it’s a very difficult life.
PORTER: [questioning a child in the camp] How old are you?
[The sound of the child responding.]
PORTER: Do you speak English?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD REFUGEE: No English.
PORTER: No English, no.
PORTER: [now narrating again, this time from the camp] As we walk through the camp the ground is wet and there’s some mud and lots of clothes being hung out to dry.
PORTER: [Now talking to another child.] What’s his name?
PORTER: Kenon. Kenon, how old are you?
KENON: [via a translator] Six.
PORTER: Six years old. How long have you lived here in Plementina?
KENON: [via a translator] A full three years.
PORTER: For three years! How is your life here?
KENON: [via a translator] It’s very difficult.
PORTER: Very difficult. Do you want to go somewhere else?
KENON: [via a translator] Yes, I do.
PORTER: Where would you like to go?
KENON: [via a translator] In Austria.
PORTER: In Austria [laughing along with the interpreter]
PORTER: [now narrating again] Sandra, who helped translate, works for the United Nations at the Plementina camp.
PORTER: [Now interviewing Sandra] What’s life like for a child in Plementina camp?
SANDRA: It’s quite difficult. The fact that they live somewhere else instead of their home, it’s horrible enough. As much as we can we are trying to give them a decent way of life. But sometimes very difficult.
PORTER: She is concerned that the scars of war and the trauma of fleeing war will never heal for these children, causing long-term problems for them and the rest of the world.
SANDRA You should see some pictures they are making. Even for the people who don’t have anything to do with the psycho-social program, they can realize that there are some scars.
PORTER: Beyond the psychological trauma, children on the run from war face threats to their personal security, suffer from a lack of regular education, and little or no healthcare. Again, Patrick Fruchet from UNICEF.
FRUCHET: A child is more likely to die from not being immunized as a result of armed conflict than to die as a result of the armed conflict. In other words, it’s the same thing. Because of the disruption of the conflict they don’t receive their immunization and therefore they’re vulnerable to a whole slew of child killers basically.
PORTER: What can be done to help these children? I asked Sandra if there are lessons here that can be applied in other conflicts.
SANDRA: Let’s try not to have a conflict first. Let’s be more focused on the kids. They are our future. And if they have scars from the conflict one day they will be a person with scars. And they can become violent. You can see many of the kids are violent without reason.
PORTER: You think it might be the seeds for another war?
SANDRA: Yes. Unfortunately, yes. They’ve suffered because of the war and those scars can make from them, unfortunately, another warriors. What we don’t want. Let’s have more doctors and more teachers.
PORTER: Sandra and others say listening to voices from the field is vital because it reminds aid providers that each conflict situation is different and humanitarian responses must be tailored to fit local needs.
SANDRA: It has to be much more let’s say, targeted. It would be better if the donors come down to the field. Please do not stay at the headquarters. I know that you like your offices with air conditioners and those things. If you want to have like, improved humanitarian assistance situation in Kosovo, please come down to the field.
PORTER: A 1951 United Nations convention guarantees refugees the right to return to their homes but that’s not as easy as it sounds. Particularly in Kosovo where the ethnic Albanian government has not welcomed the return of minority Serbs and Roma. Patrick Fruchet says UNICEF is working in one particular Kosovo community to help families return, but the results are frustrating.
FRUCHET: There were basically a number of men whose wives and children were not there. And we spoke to them about, “Will your family come? You’re rebuilding your home. Will your family come?” And the answer was, “Well, not unless there’s healthcare and education.” And so for UNICEF, the right to return, it’s not just to return to a house, it’s to return to a community with services.
SIMON HASELOCK: It is very unlikely or unreasonable to expect that three years after the, what happened here that, you know, all of a sudden these people are going to be welcomed back with open arms by the majority community.
PORTER: Simon Haselock is chief spokesperson for the United Nations mission which runs Kosovo. He says the UN plans for returning refugees and displaced people to their homes are based on creating both safe conditions and local services. And he knows that for children and adults this is an urgent task.
HASELOCK: The next two or three years are the critical years for returns. If it lasts any longer than that, of course, you then become into the problem where these people become too embedded where they are and it’s less likely that they will return at all.
PORTER: That’s a sobering thought and a vivid reminder that child refugees can be just as much victims as those injured in war. And it’s up to their parents to resolve the underlying problems that led to war in the first place.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security