Colombia: a tale of hope and fear
La Sierra, a colourful, hilly neighbourhood perched above Medellín, is home to a kaleidoscope of Colombia's people who are both perpetrators and victims of the country's violence past and present.
From the Afro-colombian municipalities of the northwestern Choco, to the indigenous communities of Cauca and Antioquia, to the demobilised fighters and drug lords of Medellin, people come, settle, live and die in La Sierra.
The base of La Sierra resembles a regular working-class neighbourhood. Tightly knitted single-storey houses line the two- lane paved road that snails through the neighbourhood. Vans pass every ten minutes or so, transporting workers between La Sierra's different bus stops to Medellin's industrial north and residential areas.
But mid-way up the hill, the paved road comes to an abrupt stop. From there on, La Sierra dwellers pursue their way along a steep stairwell that provides easy access to a multitude of scattered brick homes and apartments.
A few hundred metres higher up, the stairwell meets a crossroad of dirt paths that divides into north, east and west. Faber Zapata, an assistance officer for the ICRC's sub-delegation in Medellin, stops at this intersection, wondering if he has taken the right way to the homes he wants to visit.
Like most urban beltways in Colombia, La Sierra is divided into numbered carreras (avenues) and calles (streets). Finding an address involves the seemingly simple arithmetic of adding and subtracting the carreras and calles vertically and horizontally. However, the higher one climbs, the more difficult it is to find street signs and numbers, as brick houses become scarcer and are replaced by wooden, tin-roofed shacks.
Faber has several people he would like to visit. La Sierra's internally displaced residents live for the most part on the top of this hill where the living conditions are the worst.
" I tend to get a lot of exercise here because the displaced have settled in La Sierra's most remote and poorest areas " , says Faber. " A good part of my job involves being able to find where they now live. "
Colombia's conflict of more than forty years has produced one of the world's largest internally displaced populations. It is estimated that between two and three million people have been uprooted as a result of armed hostilities and threats. The vast majority of these people are too afraid to return home. They have left behind their land and belonging s—even their loved ones sometime —to try to build new lives. Here, they try to find food, shelter, work, schooling and medical services, with very little help, or even the knowledge that help exists.
With time, these displaced people manage to acquire life's bare necessities. In some parts of La Sierra, loosely strung electrical cables connect one home to the other—a sign that many of these residents have been here for a while and have no intention of returning to their places of origin. For some, the threat of reprisals is reason enough not to return home.
At the path's intersection, Faber asks several times for directions to the new home he would like to visit. In order to provide assistance to La Sierra's internally displaced, Faber must first visit the people who have requested help from the ICRC in order to assess their needs and provide food, material or economic assistance accordingly. He is not certain that the address given to him actually exists. But when he asks for directions, a boy tells him that the home he is seeking is up the dirt path that heads west.
As Faber climbs the dirt path, the impoverished shacks become scarcer among the verdant landscape. Some, perhaps deliberately, are tucked away in the hill's thick green brush of grass and banana trees. They are built on makeshift foundations that are vulnerable to La Sierra's frequent flash floods.
At the end of the path, Faber seems to have found the home of Consuello*, a single mother aged around 45 who recently fled her rural village in the state of Antioquia. Her four children are hanging around the dirt-floor porch which serves as an entrance to the single-bedroom home. A single electrical outlet provides the only source of light to the bedroom.
Consuello welcomes Faber with a warm smile and glass of lemonade. Her children giggle timidly, happy to see that they have a visitor. Her daughter has a badly infected ear but her mother does not have enough money or information to obtain medical attention. Faber gives her the address of a clinic where her child can be treated at very low cost.
Faber spends more than forty-five minutes listening and talking to Consuello and her children. Like the hundreds of internally displaced that Faber visits each year, Consuello tells her own tale, of being threatened by an armed group and having to flee her farmland with little notice.
" I have not seen my husband since, " she tells Faber. Faber says he is sorry for her situation and says he will soon bring her food packages and cooking utensils. Consuello smiles, thanks him and bids farewell.
On the way down, Faber tries to visit several other displaced families that want or have received assistance from the ICRC, but in many cases, no one seems to be home. During his last daily visit, a mother welcomes him into his home with a " tinto " , a strongly sweetened Colombian coffee. She thanks Faber for the economic assistance that the ICRC has given them but knows that soon her family will no longer qualify for such emergency assistance.
" My husband has found work on a construction site, " she proudly informs Faber. " I hope we can find the money to fix the tin roof before it collapses with the rain. "
The sun begins to settle and clouds begin to form on La Sierra and Faber knows that he must descend the hill as soon as possible. The thick brush gradually fades into concrete as walls flank the narrow stairwell that leads to the road.
These walls are adorned with simple, but meaningful slogans. Faber stops before one that appears to capture the neighbourhood's spirit: " Nuestra Fuerza es la Alegria " . " Our Strength is Joy " .