• Send page
  • Print page

Colombia: rebuilding a shattered life

01-03-2011 Feature

The armed conflict raging in the province of Nariño, in south-western Colombia, has made life extremely difficult for the area’s inhabitants. In recent years the province, which is considered a key corridor for the trafficking of arms and precursor chemicals, and which is rife with illegal coca plantations, has been the scene of violent clashes between various armed groups vying for control.

Sandra, who used to live in Nariño’s lush countryside, was forced by the violence to flee her home, abandon her land and leave her friends behind.

"I was living happily with my husband and four children. We had a home of our own and some animals,” said Sandra. “I sold ice cream and ready meals, and my husband worked in a mine. Our life was comfortable and we were on good terms with all of our neighbours."

Sandra’s world fell apart one evening in September when armed men burst into her home and raped her. Her husband disappeared and she grabbed her children and fled, leaving all her possessions behind. A few months later, her husband’s remains were discovered in a mass grave. "Thank God, my children and I managed to escape with our lives. But when we arrived in Pasto, we were lost and terrified. I felt very much alone.”

Her voice filling with emotion, Sandra recalled that, when she first came to the city, an acquaintance put her up. Living conditions were rudimentary. “I had to prepare food on a wood stove and my children and I slept on the floor,” she said. "My children were unhappy, they wanted to go back home and they didn’t understand why we couldn’t. They wanted to buy things that we used to have but I had no money to give them."

In spite of the difficulties she faced, Sandra knew that she had to fight; she had to go on living, if only for the sake of her children. In the beginning, she hoped that her husband would return and the family would be safely reunited, but that was not to be. “I went to the Red Cross and people there were very helpful. They gave us psychological and financial support. Thanks to them, I was able to follow a course in food preparation and set up a hot-dog stand.”

Sandra knows that she must make the most of the training she received and the hot-dog stand. She intends to work seven days a week in order to give her children the best possible life. Keeping busy is also a form of therapy for her.

"Things are not always easy, but we are managing,” said Sandra. “I’ve decided to settle here in the city. I want my children to have everything they need, I want to set a good example for them, and I want them to understand that, although we can’t live the way we used to, we still have each other – and that’s what really counts."

When asked what she would say to other women who had undergone similar experiences, she replied: “I would tell them that all is not lost. I would tell them to see their suffering as a challenge to overcome, to put the past behind them and look to the future. Every day, I do my utmost to make sure that my children have a better life and new opportunities. I’m sure that any woman who has suffered what I did is capable of overcoming the past, provided she seizes every chance she is given."


Sandra at her hot-dog stand. She sees her new trade not only as a means of earning a living, but also as a form of therapy. 

Sandra at her hot-dog stand. She sees her new trade not only as a means of earning a living, but also as a form of therapy.
© ICRC / Ó. Ordóñez