Magazine article Forced Migration Review

How to Behave: Advice from IDPs

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

How to Behave: Advice from IDPs

Article excerpt

Humanitarian actors would do well to listen to IDPs' advice when planning assistance for those affected by the presence of NSAGs.

This article presents advice given by internally displaced persons (IDPs) on how they themselves need to behave in order to survive under non-state armed groups' (NSAGs') control - which in turn has implications for how external actors should behave. The advice is drawn from more than 100 interviews conducted in 2007 and 2008 with IDPs settled in a shanty town on the outskirts of the Colombian city of Cartagena. Contradictions in the 'rules' below show that there is no uniform or right way to survive; an approach that works in one situation might be unwise in another. The ten rules are listed here under four modes of behaviour: passivity, invisibility, obethence and mobility.


In a situation where an illegal armed actor is controlling the local population and imposing order through terror, not to talk, not to know and not to see may be essential coping strategies.

Rule 1: Keep your mouth shut - your neighbour might be an informer.

"Back in the village you should only mind your own stuff and nothing more", explains one woman. In villages under NSAG control, people need to be careful not to share information or express criticism - even to neighbours - because it could reach the ears of the armed groups and have repercussions.1 Not knowing whom to trust has a detrimental effect on social relations. When it is no longer possible to know who has made alliances with the militias, or who is an informer, mistrust creeps in, ending all social life. One local leader recalls how social relations deteriorated when the paramilitaries took control of his home region: "Then you no longer talked to the other person, to the friend...." "It was turned into a village of fear", another interviewee recalls.

Rule 2: Close your door, stay inside and watch television.

Follow the soap operas, watch the news and keep the door closed in an attempt to block out the atrocities unfolding outside. Particularly for young women, another reason to remain inside is to avoid rape. Sexual violence has been a systematic and generalised practice by NSAGs in Colombia in order to instil terror in the population. The house was considered by many the only safe place; venturing outside involved the risk of running into the armed groups, being caught in cross-fire or accidentally witnessing something. To remain inside and close your door is thus also a way to avoid witnessing a violation or an atrocity. As long as you have not seen anything you do not know what happened.


Invisibility implies to duck and hide, to melt into the rest of the population and avoid actions that can draw attention to you. Certain daily activities should be restricted or abandoned but total invisibility is never possible since everyday life has to go on.

Rule 3: Stay out of trouble.

"In my community the guerrilla [left-wing militias] kept order", one local leader explains; they punished troublemakers and acted as the rural police - always ready to intervene as the de facto armed authority. "When the local committee held meetings, they [the guerrilla] would always stand at the back of the room, and when we had finished they would give their own speech", he recalls. The population has to adjust to the rules and norms put in place by the armed actors, and face any punishments meted out for transgressing them.

Rule 4: Avoid social and political involvement.

Among the local communities, people engaged in social and political activities and with key community functions - such as school teacher or priest - are at particular risk of being targeted by NSAGs. When an area falls under control of a new NSAG all existing political power-holders are regarded as loyal to the enemy, and the NSAG seeks to exterminate them. In order to get rid of all opposition the armed groups also target people whom they believe play any organising role. …

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