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Colombia: tools for building a better future

02-12-2009 Feature

Most civilian victims of weapon contamination in Colombia live in rural areas, but returning to agricultural work after an accident can be difficult. In many cases, they have to leave their homes and move to a city, alone or with their families, to get the medical treatment they need. Many are also forced to leave the area for safety reasons.

The result is that victims and their families often lose their economic stability and security, which, in addition to the psychological impact of their injuries, makes them more vulnerable. Meanwhile, adequate support is not always available.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was so concerned about this that it launched a pilot programme in 2009 to aid the socio-economic recovery of weapon contamination victims in Colombia. The aim of the programme is to ensure that participants can meet their basic needs in a sustainable way, which helps them recover emotionally and improve their overall quality of life and that of their families.

In Bogotá, the programme is run in partnership with the Fundación Misioneros Divina Redención  San Felipe Neri (FUMDIR), with whom the ICRC has signed a cooperation agreement. An external contractor is likewise being used in the southern town of San José del Guaviare, whose experience in the area makes them particularly well placed to provide mine survivors with excellent support during their training.

To date, the programme has helped 20 people, all of whom have been affected in different ways by weapon contamination. During the course, participants benefit from technical and business training, psychosocial support, funding to set up their project, support while looking for work, and technical advice.

Presented below are five of their stories. All the course participants are hopeful that they will now be able to return to a dignified way of life thanks to the socio-economic recovery programme.


© CICR/Yolanda Betancourth 
Emiro Serpa 

Although he has lost his sight, 34-year-old Emiro is positive and is very keen to get his life back on track. He was living an uneventful life until an explosive device changed everything. “My only consolation is that I was able to see something of my children growing up. When the accident happened, my eldest daughter was 10 years old,” he says. Now I have to adapt to a new reality. The most difficult part is depending on others. Financially, things are very tough, because I have had to stop working. However, worst of all is no longer being able to see my children.”

Emiro is waiting to finish his training so that he can start his own business – renting washing machines. His socio-economic situation will improve and he will be productive once again. “Receiving training and rehabilitation is very important. I can say that I am starting a new life. I am learning to be independent, how to avoid being a burden o n my family, and best of all, to be able to leave the house unaccompanied.”


© CICR/Yolanda Betancourth 
Fabio Espejo 
    Fabio, a 37-year-old agricultural worker, used to work as an estate administrator. With the money he earned, he was able to maintain his family and had no financial worries. But his accident caused by an explosive device was devastating for him and his family. “My whole life changed. I had to visit the doctor almost every day, because the explosion had damaged my spinal cord. I couldn’t work. I began to go from house to house, looking for someone to help me because I had no money. "

But then things started to get better for Fabio and his family. In addition to the knowledge he acquired during the programme run by the ICRC and FUMDIR, Fabio received a sewing machine and equipment for making sports clothes. “The programme is excellent, as we are trained in all the important aspects of running a business. I am very motivated, because once my treatment is over I can dedicate myself full-time to the business. I hope to be able to expand and set up a factory. My daughter is studying fashion design and our dream is to rent a shop and design and sell sports clothes,” he says enthusiastically.


© CICR/Bibiana Mosquera 
Nubia Díaz 

“My husband and I used to work in the fields to support our family,” says Nubia, a 26-year-old member of the indigenous Sikuani community. But following a mine accident, her left arm and right hand had to be amputated.

“After the accident, I couldn’t even look after myself. My husband left me and took our two children with him. He said I couldn’t possibly care for them with only one arm and one hand. I haven’t been able to work since, " she explains.

But Nubia was offered a place on the pilot socio-economic recovery programme, and once she finishes her training she will set up a handicraft workshop with her family’s support.

“My business is called Fibras de Cumare , and I will be making handicraft articles using the fibres of the Chambira palm tree, such as pretty bracelets, fans, bags and baskets,” she says.

© CICR/Yolanda Betancourth 
Ismaelina Burbano 

Life was good for 42-year-old Ismaelina until the day of her terrible accident, after which her right leg had to be amputated. “My husband and I used to own an estate with 10 labourers. We grew coffee, cocoa and bananas. We were doing very well. I had everything I needed and I could help my parents, " she recalls.

Ismaelina tried to hide the physical impact of the accident and the death of her father for fear that the estate would be taken away. Three years later, her husband died, the property was seized and she had to move to Bogotá.

Today, things are getting better for Ismaelina, who is participating in a training programme which will provide her with the necessary basic materials for setting up a restaurant. " During the training, I learned about customer service, saving money, and buying cheaply and selling at a higher price. I also learned how to use a computer. Once you learn the letters and the numbers, the rest is a breeze, " she says .


© CICR/Yolanda Betancourth 
Javier Gutiérrez 

Javier, 33 years old, suffered multiple injuries in a mine accident.

“I was very happy working on the estate. I used to get up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows and then I dealt with various chores. I always had money to take my girlfriend out, " he recalls.

After the accident, his girlfriend left him and his family started to leave him out. Nor did he have any money left. “I had become a burden for them because I had no work and wasn’t contributing a penny, " he says. But once he has completed his training in the socio-economic recovery programme, Javier will receive the information and basic materials he needs to open and manage a shop.

My shop will mean I can start a new life and not have to depend on anyone. In fact, it's the other way round – I will be able to help others. I have learned that if I commit to opening a shop I have to know how to keep it going, know its strengths and weaknesses, and know how to market its services,” says Javier. His dream is to buy a small house in Bogotá, finish secondary school and study law “so I can help the poor”.