Forced from home, Colombians build a life in a basketball stadium

A child eating from a bowl peers out from a tent.
For two years, the residents of San Isidro, Colombia, have taken shelter in the Crystal Coliseum in Buenaventura [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]
For two years, the residents of San Isidro, Colombia, have taken shelter in the Crystal Coliseum in Buenaventura [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Buenaventura, Colombia – Day after day, month after month, Consuelo Manyoma waits for news that it is safe for her family of seven to return home.

Manyoma is from San Isidro, an Afro-Colombian village nestled between tropical forests and the Calima River in the country’s southwest.

There, nine Black communities collectively own 67,000 hectares (165,600 acres), where families make a living by farming, fishing, and logging. But the town is also a strategic stop in the international cocaine trade, located along a corridor that drug traffickers use to reach Buenaventura, the country’s largest port.

As a result, gunfire often echoes through San Isidro, leaving villagers in fear of stray bullets and other threats. But two years ago, on April 10, 2022, Manyoma and other residents reached a breaking point.

After several gunfights, an imposed curfew and the disappearance of a villager, families fled the village in droves, climbing onto two buses they had chartered with what few possessions they could carry.

But their escape thrust them into the midst of yet another crisis: one of mass internal displacement.

Millions of Colombians have been forced from their homes, as the country contends with a decades-long conflict that pits government forces against drug cartels, armed groups and right-wing paramilitaries, all jockeying for power and territory.

Since leaving San Isidro, Manyoma's family and dozens of others have lived crammed in the Crystal Coliseum, a sports arena turned emergency shelter in Buenaventura.

They thought their stay would last a matter of weeks, maybe months. But now, two years on, Manyoma and others say they feel stranded in a state of limbo, waiting for a peace that never seems to come and struggling to scrape a living in the meantime.

“It feels like living in a crystal ball with no way out,” Manyoma told Al Jazeera.

An invisible crisis

Consuela Manyoma leans against a railing outside the Crystal Coliseum
Consuelo Manyoma looks after her four children and her two elderly parents [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]
Consuelo Manyoma looks after her four children and her two elderly parents [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

From the outside, the Crystal Coliseum appears like any other sports arena in Buenaventura: Its concrete bowl towers above nearby residential homes and palm trees.

But inside, families have transformed every locker room, bathroom, utility closet and passageway into makeshift residences. Walls and private rooms are fashioned out of trash bags and plastic tarps, and the ground is littered with heaps of clothes.

Children race across the central basketball court, climb up and down the stands, and zip through corridors. Near one exit, women take turns at the only working faucet in the building, filling their buckets with water to clean dishes and wash clothes.

The elderly, meanwhile, sit outside under the cool shade of a leafy tree, desperate for a bit of greenery to remind them of home.

They are among the 6.8 million people currently displaced within Colombia. The country has one of the highest internally displaced populations in the world as a result of the fighting.

Colombia’s conflict started in 1964, as left-wing rebel groups rose in arms against the government over entrenched inequalities. One of the most prominent was the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which became the country’s largest rebel organisation.

But six decades later, the conflict has morphed into a bloody war between paramilitary groups, rebel militias, drug traffickers and the army.

Inside a cement coliseum, families sit in the stands or set up bedsheets as walls for makeshift shelters.
Displaced families have lived in the Crystal Coliseum for the past two years [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Throughout the conflict, millions of civilians have sought to save their own lives by fleeing their homes, often escaping to impoverished urban areas — and sacrificing their communities and livelihoods in the process.

A 2016 peace deal led to the demobilisation of the FARC, but even so, the war rages on, with more than 50,000 still displaced annually since 2021.

With violence so pervasive in Colombia, news of mass displacements often fades into the background. It’s a phenomenon repeated the world over: Human rights experts say internal displacement is a widespread but underrepresented problem.

As recently as 2022, internal displacement across the globe reached a record high, with 71.1 million people forced from their homes due to violence, natural disasters and other causes.

Instead of crossing international borders, though, they resettle within their own country, often in precarious circumstances.

“I think we have normalised this type of victimisation,” said Dennis Huffington, a researcher at the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, a Colombia-based think-tank.

He believes the nature of Colombia’s conflict — in particular, its duration and brutality — have rendered the country’s displaced populations all the more invisible.

“We have been immersed in a series of conflicts for more than 60 years,” he explained. “Displacement is something that no longer generates the same impact on public opinion, especially when the war has degraded to the point that a displaced person is privileged compared to other people who disappear, are dismembered or are murdered.”

A sanctuary from gunfire

Consuelo Manyoma sits on concrete bleachers surrounded by her children and mother.
Consuelo Manyoma cares for four children, plus her two elderly parents, in the Crystal Coliseum [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]
Consuelo Manyoma cares for four children, plus her two elderly parents, in the Crystal Coliseum [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

For Manyoma, a single mother with a slicked-back bun and a steady gaze, home is now the men’s locker room of the Crystal Coliseum.

She, her four children and her two elderly parents share two mattresses plopped on the floor as bedding.

Her few possessions include a gas stove and several pots and pans, as well as a television set she shares with other families seeking distraction from the stark surroundings.

But as desperate as her circumstances may be, they offer a respite from the crack of gunfire and the sight of heavily armed men patrolling San Isidro.

The village has been contending with heightened violence since 2021, when the Gulf Clan, Colombia’s biggest drug cartel, started to expand into territory controlled by the National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest remaining rebel group.

When the Gulf Clan laid claim to areas surrounding San Isidro, tensions erupted. Manyoma remembers looking outside her house, only to see rifle-toting men dressed in camouflage strutting through the village to assert their dominance.

She would lock the front door in response, while her children screamed and hid under the beds.

Manyoma feared the “bad men” would take the children away. Armed men had already intercepted her 16-year-old daughter Naomi four times as she walked down the dirt roads near her home.

“They would offer me hard cash: 50,000 pesos [$13] and 100,000-peso [$26] bills,” said Naomi, now 18. “They told me it was easy money, that I could help my family, and that all I had to do was wash their clothes and to buy supplies for them at the store.”

She turned them down, as her mother taught her to do. But the fear of being recruited stayed with her.

“I was afraid that they would grab me and force me to go with them anyway,” Naomi said.

Resources stretched thin

Two women lie on a mattress plopped on the floor of a coliseum.
Daniela Cardenas, 22, and her mother Elsa Mari Hurtado, 60, have set up a mattress in a coliseum bathroom for their family to sleep on [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]
Daniela Cardenas, 22, and her mother Elsa Mari Hurtado, 60, have set up a mattress in a coliseum bathroom for their family to sleep on [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Residents say life in the Crystal Coliseum has likewise become unbearable. Most days, Manyoma struggles to put food on the table. She relies on her children’s free school lunches to feed them. Breakfast is often only a small cup of black coffee.

When there is money to buy groceries, Manyoma prioritises nourishing her ailing mother.

“I feel helpless,” said Manyoma, her voice quivering. “I’m doing my best to help my kids, my mother and my father, but it’s not enough.”

Even with a paying job, her income is slim: Manyoma works as a school lunch lady, and still she struggles to pay for basic necessities like food.

But other members of her community struggle to find employment at all. Because most displaced people in Colombia are from the countryside and are used to living off the land, they often find that their job skills — usually related to farming and fishing — are a tough sell in the city.

Government institutions are also overwhelmed by the droves of displaced families. In January, the Ombudsman's Office said that cities and towns are struggling to accommodate victims as the country’s internal conflict drags on.

Colombian law requires local governments to house victims of forced displacement, but the Ombudsman’s Office found that most municipalities lack adequate shelters. The agency called on local authorities to step up housing budgets for displaced populations.

Colombian law also stipulates humanitarian aid for conflict victims. But residents sheltering in the Crystal Coliseum told Al Jazeera that the subsidy they should receive — about 500,000 ($130) for each household, dispensed roughly four times a year — arrives on an inconsistent schedule. Sometimes they only receive the aid two or three times a year.

They also said the payments are insufficient to cover their needs, especially in larger families.

Non-governmental organisations are trying to fill in the gaps by delivering food, assisting with job placement, and providing students with school supplies. But groups like the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) told Al Jazeera that Colombia has seen a drop-off in humanitarian funding as international support for the crisis wanes.

For every $100 requested for displaced people, refugees and migrants, Colombia receives only $34, according to the NRC.

“The gap between the funding needed and the amount provided for humanitarian aid is insufficient to alleviate and respond to the needs of the population,” said Giovanni Rizzo, director of the NRC in Colombia.

Death in limbo

Marcial Moreno, a wheelchair user, poses for a photo in the Crystal Coliseum.
Marcial Moreno, 46, blames the stress of living in the Crystal Coliseum for his mother's death [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]
Marcial Moreno, 46, blames the stress of living in the Crystal Coliseum for his mother's death [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Meagre resources, widespread unemployment and cramped, ad hoc conditions together have translated into health issues for residents of the Crystal Coliseum.

Marcial Moreno, a 46-year-old wheelchair user, said that his mother, a lifelong farmer, lost her appetite when their family moved into the stadium, discouraged by the abrupt life changes.

Six months into their stay, her health took a turn for the worse when she received devastating news from San Isidro.

The land she had farmed since childhood — land passed down from her ancestors — had been pillaged by armed forces, and the chickens and ducks she tended to for economic subsistence had been slaughtered for food.

“She never wanted to be here because she said life was too difficult in the city,” said Moreno. “But once she heard that her animals back home had died and that her home had been robbed, she stopped eating.”

Six months later, Moreno’s mother died in a hospital bed from malnutrition.

In total, five of the San Isidro residents staying in the Crystal Coliseum have died since their displacement two years ago, according to community leaders like Gregorio Cardenas. He argued that a leading factor in their deaths was stress.

“After 40 or 50 years of working hard, it’s difficult to leave your things behind, knowing that you will never be able to recover everything,” said Cardenas. “If at some moment, with the mercy of God, you return to the territory, you have to start over again.”

Cardenas has experienced loss firsthand. Last year, his wife died from a heart attack, which he attributes to their prolonged displacement in the stadium and the mental breakdown it provoked.

Everyone arrived at the stadium with the dream of one day returning home to San Isidro, Cardenas explained. But now it has become clear to him that “not all the people that we arrived with are going to make it back to the territory”.

Returning home

A view of the inside of Crystal Coliseum, with a blue basketball court surrounded by concrete stands
The Crystal Coliseum houses nearly 80 families who were displaced by conflict in the village of San Isidro [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]
The Crystal Coliseum houses nearly 80 families who were displaced by conflict in the village of San Isidro [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Government agencies are working to allow residents to return to their homes in the coming months, according to Rosiris Angulo, a regional director for the Unit for the Comprehensive Attention and Reparation of Victims, an agency tasked with supporting conflict victims.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Angulo explained that plans for bringing the San Isidro residents home have been repeatedly delayed due to security risks.

A committee of government and army officials must first verify that the area is safe enough for the community to return, she explained. That condition was only met last August.

Now, the unit is taking measures to improve the village’s housing, health centre and school before residents’ arrival, to ensure quality of life once they return.

The first residents are set to arrive back in San Isidro later this month.

But security experts expressed concern that armed men in San Isidro still pose a danger to civilians. The Gulf Clan has gradually pushed the ELN out of the village and exerted dominance. The gunfights have died down, but civilian communities could still be exposed to child recruitment, murders, curfews and landmines.

“That’s not peace. That’s coercion,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst at Crisis Group, a non-profit focused on conflict resolution.

Residents of San Isidro sit between tarps and hanging sheets to get privacy in the coliseum.
In the stadium, rooms are fashioned out of plastic tarps and trash bags [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

On a national level, the government of President Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first leftist leader, has vowed to address Colombia’s prolonged armed conflict by reconfiguring the country’s security programme and using dialogue with armed groups to reach a lasting peace.

His “Total Peace” plan has managed to launch talks with the ELN, two dissident groups of the FARC and a handful of gangs dedicated to drug trafficking and extortion. Petro has also secured a bilateral ceasefire with the ELN that is expected to last through August.

In March, the Gulf Clan also expressed renewed interest in government talks. While it had previously struck a ceasefire agreement with the government in 2022, negotiations broke down last March, after Petro accused the cartel of attacking police officers and infrastructure.

Experts indicated that incorporating the Gulf Clan in the talks will be key to further driving down violence. So far, Petro’s “Total Peace” approach has produced mixed results, with kidnappings and extortion figures skyrocketing last year while the rate of forced displacements dipped.

In 2023, 63,000 Colombians were forced from their homes, down from the 83,000 that were displaced in 2022, according to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a nongovernmental organisation.

But displacements have ticked back up this year. According to the United Nations, 7,600 Colombians were displaced in the first two months of 2024 — a 7.6 percent increase when compared to the same period the year before.

Among the thousands displaced every year, many are Black or Indigenous. According to CODHES, 55 percent of the Colombians displaced last year were ethnic minorities.

For such communities, forced displacement is especially painful because of their connection to the land. The residents of San Isidro, for instance, fought hard to own their land, overcoming a legacy of slavery and discrimination to care for the corner of Colombia their ancestors called home.

Manyoma, who grew up playing with her friends in the nearby river and learning to farm yams and yucca at a young age, believes she has no home but San Isidro.

She hopes that the village might offer her and her family a better life: “I have faith that one day we will return to our territory and that our lives will be the same as they were before.”

Source: Al Jazeera