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Colombia: one brave woman saves the day

23-09-2010 Feature

In Colombia, rural communities have difficulty accessing even the most basic of health-care services. This is the story of a woman who, in the absence of a doctor, saved the day by taking charge of a medical emergency herself. Below is also a report on the ICRC's continuing efforts to meet to the population's most pressing needs through financial support, training and prevention activities.

Briseida González    

  ©CICR/ Christoph von Toggenburg / co-e-01193    
Community members in Mocuare attend a first-aid course conducted by the ICRC to enable them to respond to emergencies.    

  ©CICR/ Christoph von Toggenburg / co-e-01185    
An ICRC employee on a medical visit to Mocuare, in San José del Guaviare, attends to a young patient.    

  ©CICR/ Christoph von Toggenburg / co-e-01189    
Leaflets on assistance to victims of mines and other explosive remnants of war are distributed by the ICRC to residents of Mocuare.    


For nine years now, Briseida González has lived in Mocuare, a village on the banks of the Guaviare river, in south-eastern Colombia.

The peace inspired by the region's natural beauty and the tranquil flow of the river is unfortunately often broken by clashes between the different armed groups roaming the area.

One day, a few months ago, news reached Mocuare that 11-year-old Edelmira* and her parents had been involved in a nasty anti-personnel mine accident and were being rushed to the village.

Briseida was immediately informed; she is seen in her village as something of a medical expert. " I've done an advanced first-aid course, but that doesn't equip me to deal with all the situations that arise in the village, " she explained. " I was never taught how to deliver a baby, for example, or deal with a mine injury. "

As there was no doctor present, or even a nurse, Briseida took charge of the situation.

" The girl was in a very bad way. She had sustained injuries to her face, legs and arms, " she recalled. " The worst thing was that we had no fluids to stabilize her. We knew it was absolutely essential for her to go to hospital, but we had no means of getting her there. "

In villages without doctors, there is often no access to a motorboat either, for collecting and transporting emergency patients to hospital. Furthermore, the armed conflict has put pressure on the economy and restricted people's movements, so fuel is now a scarcity.

 "We have no doctor"  

Briseida remembers all the steps they had to take to get Edelmira safely from Mocuare to Puerto Alvira. " First we had to convince a guy to give us some fuel – the ICRC paid him for it later – then we had to make sure the armed groups knew we had an emergency so that they would let us pass. It was night-time, so we wore white and carried a torch on the boat to avoid being mistaken for someone else and being shot at. "

" The girl is now on the road to recovery, but things don't always end so well. We haven't had a doctor for over five months now. In an area like this, with some 800 inhabitants, there should really be a doctor present at all times. "

Thanks to the ICRC's ongoing support, Edelmira is still receiving treatment. Her family had to leave their home in the wake of the accident, putting them in a situation of economic instability.

What concerns Briseida the most is that this kind of situation could arise time and time again. " I'm worried about the children. It makes me sad to think that people can be helped but there are no means of helping them. I remember one boy who was malnourished and bloated. He was suffering from severe stomach cramps. We tried to help him, but in the end couldn't do anything. Children are dying of diarrhoea simply for lack of resources. It's terrible. "

  * Not her real name    
Poor access to health care

  Rural communities in Colombia have difficulties accessing even the most basic medical services, and in some areas the armed conflict only compounds the problem. It is not just that suitable and high-quality health care is hard to find – there is also a prevailing lack of security, arising from the frequent armed clashes, threats of violence and weapon contamination, preventing people from leaving their villages in search of health care.
  Anti-personnel mines, improvised explosive devices and explosive remnants of war (artillery shells, mortar bombs and grenades) lead to death, serious physical injury, considerable psychological trauma and disastrous socioeconomic repercussions for thousands of victims in rural areas, along with their families and communities.

  The ICRC's response

  Another problem is that there is little awareness among rural communities of what medical services the State actually has to offer. The ICRC therefore acts as an adviser for these communities, directing people to the health authorities that can help. It also cooperates with the Colombian Red Cross in holding first-aid training for members of the community, to enable them to respond to emergencies. Participants learn how to check for consciousness, breathing and circulation. They are shown how to deal with cuts, scrapes and burns, as well as how to transport patients to hospital.

  Between January and August 2010, the ICRC:

  • carried out 88 prevention activities, including promoting safe behaviour and raising awareness of the rights of weapon-contamination victims, for more than 2,000 members of the community and local government representatives in weapon-contaminated areas. Together with the Colombian Red Cross, it carried out a further 41 of these activities, to the benefit of some 970 people.

  • ran three first-aid courses for communities living in weapon-contaminated areas, so that they might be able to deal with an emergency in the absence of a doctor or nurse and while awaiting transportation to hospital.