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Victims of armed conflict in Colombia: "Speak for us!"

23-06-2009 Feature

As part of the Our world. Your move. campaign marking the 150th anniversary of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, the ICRC has commissioned research into the experiences and opinions of civilians coping with armed conflict and violence in eight countries. Eros Bosisio, who coordinated the research, describes his experiences in Colombia.

The ICRC will be publishing the research results on key dates related to the campaign in June and August. The results provide valuable information as to how people experience armed conflict and its aftermath.

The other seven countries involved in the research project are Afghanistan, the Democratic Re public of the Congo, Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia and the Philippines.

The research is both quantitative (statistical) and qualitative (personal interviews and focus groups). The article below gives a glimpse of the qualitative work conducted in Colombia. (All the qualitative research findings will be released at the end of August 2009).

Note:For their own protection, we have changed some of the names of the people who were interviewed for this article

* * * * *

I recently spent about three weeks in Colombia gathering first-hand accounts (testimonies), from civilians directly affected by violence and conflict in that country, for use in a campaign to mark the 150th anniversary of the Red Cross and the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. This work was jointly implemented with Myriam Ortiz, a private consultant based in Bogotá.

We identified and then interviewed people directly affected by armed conflict. The research was carried out through focus groups and one-on-one in-depth interviews.

We focused on internally displaced persons, separated families, anti-personnel landmine victims and " first responders " (e.g. health workers). The interviews covered such subjects as people's needs and concerns, their expectations, the meaning of the humanitarian gesture, the law of war (how combatants should conduct themselves during armed conflict, the effectiveness of the Geneva Conventions, etc.), general perceptions of humanitarian organizations and respect for health personnel and services.

The aim of this research project was to give voice to those who are most vulnerable and to draw attention to the plight of civilians living in situations of armed conflict and violence.

Lasting effects of the conflict  

The conflict in Colombia has now lasted more than 45 years.

“We are living with something that people must experience in order to be able to understand. It is cruel and absurd: a Calvary without reason,” said Laura, a displaced person in Florencia. “It causes immense suffering.”

Most of the people we met had been through difficult, even traumatic, experiences. They were marked by the conflict, and this was very apparent during the interviews. The damage done to them was physical (some of the interviewees were mine victims) and/or psychological. “I still have trouble sleeping and sometimes I feel I’m losing my mind,” said Sergio, who had been displaced, with all the members of his extensive family, to the capital, and had been living there for more than five years. He rested his head between his arms and took deep breaths between sentences. “It is something I cannot overcome by myself because I don’t see any solution to it. Because of the conflict, there is virtually no possibility of being able to return to my place of origin,” he said. He stressed that psychological support was as important as medical or other kinds of aid.

This was confirmed by Alan, a 15-year-old boy from Villavicencio, whose father was held captive for more than seven years. He was only eight when his father was taken away. " When I needed him most, " Alan said. “This conflict is traumatic. It changes the way you are. During those long years, I was given moral and psychological support. And that was extremely important. "

Harsh new realities for displaced persons  

Some of the most recently displaced persons we interviewed could hardly hold back their tears. This was true also of some long-term displaced persons when they reflected on their current situation. Most of them had been resettled and had been living for many years in the poorest sections of various cities, where conditions are very harsh. “The part of the city where we now live is very unsafe, " said María, who had been displaced three times and whose husband had been killed. " I’m very worried that my children are growing up in this environment. We need to educate them in some basic values. Like tolerance, solidarity and respect for others. This is very important as there is so much racial antagonism and social indifference.”

According to a study conducted at the end of 2007 by the ICRC and the World Food Programme, the millions displaced by the armed conflict are among the poorest people in Colombia. The study states that children in 25% to 52% of displaced households eat fewer than three meals a day because their families do not have enough money to buy food. It goes on to say that many families are living in extreme poverty and that the majority of displaced households suffer from a greater degree of structural poverty than do residential households. 

  “All I wanted was to be able to cultivate my piece of land and live off its harvest. Today I am labelled'displaced.'It is a stigma and a continuous humiliation,” said Jorge, a recently displaced campesino. He had made the decision to move to Medellín when his brother was killed, fearing that the same thing could happen to him. “I could never exchange the countryside for the city. The city is very hard. It is not my world. I lost everything that my family and I had built after many years of hard work. Here, in the city, I don’t have anything. It is something that I could never have imagined going through.”

For the civilian population, forced displacement is one of the most serious consequences of the conflict. Millions of Colombians have had to abandon their homes, their land, their crops, their animals and familiar well-established ways of life. They endure the coldness and hostility of the big cities where they tend to end up, where the solidarity to which they are accustomed is often absent.

When displaced people arrive in “the city” they are often completely lost. We were told that they needed better guidance from the government and from the various humanitarian organizations that assist them. Sometimes they do not even know that support is available to them.

 Reflecting on his hard life, Alejandro said, “I don’t have an education and therefore I have no chance of finding a job. It’s tragic. My family is suffering and I feel very sad about the situation. " Among the heads of displaced households we interviewed, many had only the beginnings of an education, making it difficult for these families to earn more in a demanding urban environment.
 

 Mine victims  

The conflict had dramatically changed the lives of most of the interviewees, displaced people and mine victims alike. “I had to re-orientate my life, " said Felipe, a mine victim. " I liked to read a lot and wanted to study. But the mine accident has changed everything.” Felipe's father recently died from the pain of guilt, as he had sent him to collect wood a few hundred metres from his village when he stepped on a mine. Now Felipe lives with his wife and small child in a tiny room without windows in temporary lodgings in Bogotá. 

 Distinction - a basic rule  

All those we interviewed felt very strongly about the issue of civilian involvement in the conflict. They wanted us to communicate this message on their behalf: civilians like themselves must be spared and not involved in the conflict. “You, as an organization, have an impact,” we were told. " Speak for us.“ There was also general agreement that civilians deserve more security and better protection in times of armed conflict.

“We are the ones who suffer the most,” said Vicencio, who was displaced to Bogotá with his entire family. “The rules and laws to protect civilians exist, but the problem is that they are not obeyed. Conflicts should be conducted among people who are armed. We don’t have any arms. We should not be involved. Many of us don’t even know why there is a conflict anymore. We don’t have anything to do with it.”

We met people who live in fear of being identified with either side in the conflict. They had been threatened and subjected to extraordinary pressure to take an active part in the conflict. It was this that made most of them decide to move and suffer the stigma of displacement. This fear of being identified with one side can be seen in much of the country.

When they were asked for examples of humanitarian acts performed by or dinary citizens, people often cited fear as a great obstacle. Naira, a nurse in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, put it like this: “If somebody helps someone in need, he or she is immediately seen to be taking sides and, therefore, to belong to a particular group. For this reason, many people prefer not to make humanitarian gestures.” 

  Health staff and services  

All the interviewees also agreed that health personnel and services (like ambulances) should be spared and that all wounded and sick persons in a conflict deserve to be cared for, “enemies and friends " alike, as all of them are “human beings.”

 To get the views of the people who are assisting victims of armed conflict, we also interviewed a number of health workers and some volunteers of the Colombian Red Cross. “The emblem of the Red Cross allows us to work, " said one volunteer. " Gaining the trust of the various parties involved took a very long time. This trust is very important: it guarantees access to victims and provides opportunities to help them. And it is not something that you can achieve in one day,” said John Alex, a dedicated volunteer with the Caquetá regional branch of the Colombian Red Cross in Florencia.

Asked to give an example of essential information for civilians living in areas of armed conflict, the first health worker cited above said, “To know that there is someone there to help them.” Fernando, recently injured by an anti-personnel mine while working on land near his farm, agreed. “Medical staff should be available to help, " he said. " And it is essential to respect them because they save lives. I was saved by them.” The story of Fernando is particularly tragic: his two brothers are also victims of landmines, one of them being injured while coming to the aid of another brother who had stepped on a mine.

Everet is a dedicated 34-year-old volunteer from the Colombian Red Cross. He joined the National Society at the age of 18 and worked for many years where the conflict was very intense – close to the city of Villavicencio. “When we arrive with an ambulance to rescue a wounded person,” he said, “’just the sight of the medical personnel seems to lessen that person's pain. He or she already feels a bit of relief. I would say that the Red Cross emblem is the first psychological assistance we provide, the very first injection of hope. You can clearly see this on the face of the person. His or her face changes, reassumes something like its usual expression. This is very important because in those situations the person is already dead, emotionally speaking.”

The ICRC in Colombia assists people displaced by the armed conflict, helps victims of anti-personnel landmines, visits people held in government detention facilities in connection with the armed conflict, acts as a neutral intermediary during the release of hostages and helps to clarify the fate of missing persons.

 

See also: Our world. Views from the field. The impact of conflicts and armed violence on civilians


Photos

Eros Bosisio interviewing a displaced person at the ICRC office in Florencia. 

Eros Bosisio interviewing a displaced person at the ICRC office in Florencia.
© ICRC

Myriam Ortiz interviewing a nurse at the main hospital of Puerto Asís, Putumayo. 

Myriam Ortiz interviewing a nurse at the main hospital of Puerto Asís, Putumayo.
© ICRC

Alan, 15 year old, from Villavicencio, whose father was held captive for more than seven years. 

Alan, 15 year old, from Villavicencio, whose father was held captive for more than seven years.
© ICRC

Focus group discussion with mine victims at the ICRC office of Medellin. 

Focus group discussion with mine victims at the ICRC office of Medellin.
© ICRC

Eros Bosisio with John Alex, a volunteer of the Colombian Red Cross in the office of the regional branch of the Caquetá CRC in Florencia. 

Eros Bosisio with John Alex, a volunteer of the Colombian Red Cross in the office of the regional branch of the Caquetá CRC in Florencia.
© ICRC