Colombia – The people behind armed conflict Part VI: The Bojayá massacre

Hi everyone! This is the last part of my paper on the internally displaced in Colombia. The massacre in Bojayá is one of the most gruesome examples of how whole communities as well as individual lives have been destroyed by the armed conflict. Unfortunately, this is not the only example of the extremity of war in Colombia. Amongst the less obvious afflictions of armed struggle, events like the Bojayá massacre has occurred throughout the span of the conflict and been the face of the destruction of millions of lives. 

Deep within the Colombian jungle, in the Chocó department in western Colombia lies Bojayá, a small municipality mostly inhabited by people of Afro-Colombian and indigenous ethnicity. Bojayá’s principal town Bellavista lies on the Atrato River, the region’s most important transportation channel.[71]

In December 1996, paramilitaries decided to take command of the lower and central areas of the Atrato River. With the collusion of the military, the police and other government requests they entered the region with the excuses of eliminating the subversion that was suppressing the afro-Colombian and indigenous communities and generating massacres, disappearances and forced displacement.[72] On the 2nd of May 2002, the FARC and the paramilitary division, Élmer Cádenas were caught up in a confrontation that forced the citizens of Bellavista to seek refuge inside a church in the town centre. To enhance their position, the FARC launched a cylinder bomb destined for the enemy’s camp adjacent to the church. The projectile missed its target and instead crashed through the roof of the church, exploding by the altar.[73] 79 civilians were killed that day: 41 women and 38 men. 48 of the victims were under 18 years old. It was an incident that terrorised not only the petrified inhabitants that survived, but also the communities in the surrounding area. Terrified of the recurrence of events and frightened for their lives, a wave of mass displacement occurred where around 5,771 persons from Bellavista, Vigía and other neighbouring communities fled to the department capital in Chocó, Quibdó.[74] Those who were able escaped to bigger cities such as Medellín and Cali. The massacre in 2002 was not an isolated incident of a war crime committed, but the most extreme expression of attacks on the communities in Bojayá.

At the end of 2002 and 2003 civilians started to return to Bellavista, but a substantial amount of 280 families did not believe the security conditions to be sufficient for them to return and decided to resettle in Quibdó. They created the Associación de Desplazados del Dos del Mayo – 2 May Displaced people Association (ADOM). The forced displacement in Bojayá continued and both individual and mass displacement have taken place since the massacre. Sadly, this shows that the siege against native groups is persisting. Due to the impossibility to return home, communities have had problems maintaining their culture and unity. The San Martín community located by the Atrato River was forced to disintegrate and join other communities as a consequence of the massacre. The displacement has spread to other parts of Chocó and according to Acción Social, 45% of the population has been victims of displacement leading to instability in land tenure by the natives and thus deepens the humanitarian crisis. Chocó has for centuries been known for its richness in natural resources and has been fundamental to the armed conflict between guerrillas and paramilitaries and the consequences of such confrontations. The cultivation of illegal crops has increased due to the fumigation of such crops in the Amazonia region initiated by Plan Colombia. It has moved the business to other areas such as Chocó. As for the survivors from Bellavista, the canister bomb has resulted in several people developing cancer and at least five people have died as a result of it. Other illnesses related to the effects of the massacre have also been documented. Especially in situations of homicides and massacres the number of victims is much higher than the death toll recorded because of the physical or mental problems that arise in the aftermath. Moreover, land theft has been documented in areas of Chocó after the massacre, but been impossible to return to the rightful owners. The demobilisation of paramilitaries has shown to be unsuccessful and armed groups have remained intact under changed names and the replacement of troops. Along the rivers San Juan, Baudó and higher Atrato the armed groups are now known as Rastrojos and the central and lower Atrato is dominated by Los Urabeños who are in fact direct descendants of the Bloque Elmer Cárdenas involved in the massacre in 2002.[75]

The tragedy in Bojayá is one of the most horrific and fatal events in the history of the Colombian conflict and represents the most common patterns of displacement in Colombia. The vulnerability of minority groups in linked to their origin in rural areas in the country, which are the zones most exposed to armed groups. The rural areas of the Pacific departments are particularly vulnerable due to the natural resources found there, which attracts the illegal activities of these groups. Bojayá was also a desirable area because of the Atrato River’s importance in transportation of goods. The massacre in Bojayá shows how mass displacement becomes a reality as attacks on rural communities means assaults on small local populations that have strong collective bonds, which affects their choice to flee together. Moreover the victims’ decision was to seek help and shelter in larger urban areas, supports the typical rural to urban pattern of displacement.

Fourteen years later, the Bojayá massacre is an episode in Colombian history that shows how confrontations affect the survivors for years and create deep scars that can never fully heal after such devastation. However, the communities in Bojayá are determined to continue the resistance against the armed struggle, to be a referent to peace and not just a symbol of war. The hope and will for Colombia to reconcile in peace is very much alive in Bojayá and a model for how to move forward after decades of internal struggle and suffering.[76]

Yesterday, on the 24th of November the Santos government and the FARC guerrilla signed a new, revised peace agreement to end the 52 year long armed conflict in Colombia. Although critics of the initial deal are still wary and dissatisfied with the new peace accord, the most important step forward is to come to terms with the past and create a new future in a non-violent matter so that incidents like the Bojayá massacre will never happen again. Finally, there is hope that the country can flourish into a peaceful nation uniting all Colombians. As Benjamin Franklin said: there never was a good war, or a bad peace…

Viva Colombia!!


[71] GMH, ‘Bojayá: Guerra Sin Límites, El Espectador Online, 18 September 2010 <> Accessed: 27 February 2016.

[72] Jesús Alfonso López ‘Flórez, Diez años después, Recordar, renovar el compromiso’, Bojayá, una Decada, Accessed: 23 March 2016.

[73] Garry Leech, The FARC, the Longest Insurgency (London: Zed Book Ltd, 2011).

[74] GMH, ‘Bojayá: Guerra Sin Límites, El Espectador Online, 18 September 2010.

[75] Jesús Alfonso López Flórez, Diez años después, Recordar, renovar el compromiso’, Bojayá, una Decada.

[76] Maria de los Ángeles Reyes, ‘Bojayá Quiere Ser un Referente de Paz’, Centro de Memoria Histórica, 19 February 2016 <> Accessed: 11 April 2016.

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