I don’t know if it was the altitude, but I was feeling dizzy, disorientated and exhausted. We’d travelled high up into the mountains and were sitting in a priest’s house in a grey and depressing little town. In front of us there was a man and a woman. They weren’t related; I’m not even sure they’d even met each other before that day. They were both in tears.
They were talking about wanting to retrieve bodies. The man wanted his daughter back. When he spoke of trying to get her back he broke down. The woman looked as though she’d spent days crying. As she sat with us, she still couldn’t stop the tears. All she wanted was to get her sister back.
A couple of weeks before I arrived in Colombia, four teachers were kidnapped from their schools in broad daylight. People said that the left-wing guerrilla group the FARC had taken them because they thought they were collaborating with the army. They reportedly held them hostage and later killed them. Some people say they were subjected to torture before they died. Everyone said that the teachers had never done anything wrong and had been just doing their jobs.
When I spoke to Msgr Hector Fabio Henao, the Secretary General of Caritas Colombia, he said teachers in the region were probably the only ones working along with the priests in local communities. They worked in no-go areas and for this reason they were under a lot of pressure.
He said that if more teachers were kidnapped, no one would want to teach and children would not receive an education. He said the Church had been trying to convince guerrillas to change their position and let all teachers go back to school.
Both Sister Maria* and a community leader who I spoke to, said that Colombia’s left-wing rebels used to be known for being on the side of the people.
Sister Maria told me that in the 1980s, a left-wing group in Bogota’ stole a milk van and distributed the milk to the city’s poor people.
How could they have made the leap to cold-blooded killers in such a short time?
The Sister told me that it was in part due to the fact that their structure had been weakened and they were afraid.
The founder of the guerrilla group the FARC, Manuel Marulanda, had died earlier in 2008 and two top commanders had deserted. New people were moving up the ranks.
“The rebels used to support social matters and they would never have kidnapped teachers. Now it’s only about drugs and personal issues,” said Samuele*, the community leader.
The day before we met the relatives of the murdered teachers, hundreds of children had taken to the streets of Los Rios* for a silent march calling for peace in the light of the teachers’ disappearances.
As we sat in the parish house, Sister Maria comforted the father and sister of the murdered teachers. She offered them moral support and advice about getting the bodies back and she told them God and the Church were with them. She tried to help them feel not so alone during what must have been one of the worst moments in their lives.
The father and the sister sounded fearful and looked exhausted.
After so many years of war, I imagined that tens of thousands of people in the surrounding mountains of southern Colombia were feeling the same way.
Juan* stepped on a landmine while out for a walk with his wife one day. He received gashes up and down his body and a torn stomach. His sight and hearing were damaged. He was still in pain seven months after the accident and could no longer work on his small patch of land or earn a living.
At the end of my interview with him at the Caritas Pastoral Centre in Los Rios*, he looked at me and said: “Life can be very unexpected.”
I thought he was referring to the fact he’d stepped on a landmine, but he went on to explain that because of his injuries, he was able to travel 200 miles to the city of Cali for treatment, and he’d never have dreamt before his accident that he would have had a chance to leave his hometown and visit such a place.
It seemed a slightly bizarre way of viewing his misfortune, but I couldn’t help admiring how he was dealing with his difficulties. No drama. No tears. He just managed to find something positive in a very bad situation.
It seemed to me that many of the people I spoke to in Los Rios were trying to under-play – or even deny – their desperate circumstances. After all, seeing as displacement, killings, landmine injuries and kidnappings were common, it was almost as though people had lost perspective and thought that living in a conflict zone was normal.
As a result, those affected by the conflict didn’t seem to expect very much to compensate for their damaged lives.
The Government was supposed to give financial help to people who had been made homeless. Some of the people I spoke to hadn’t applied for this.
Other people didn’t apply for financial help as they didn’t understand how the system worked. Caritas provided a lawyer to help people navigate their way through the bureaucratic complexities of applying for money for losing their homes and also to apply for compensation for landmine accidents.
Caritas also paid for a psychologist, Luis*, who specialised in helping people injured by landmines to overcome the trauma of their accidents. He also worked with those who had lost their homes.
Luis confirmed my suspicion about how people dealt with their circumstances. He said the people who’d lost their homes because of violence sometimes refused to accept their new reality. Often landmine victims were the same people who had fled the violence. A double blow. For them, reality was much tougher to accept as they had to face up to terrible injuries or even the loss of a limb, as well as the fact they had lost their home.
Luis explained that faith was an important factor in how people faced their new reality. Those who believed in God were more likely to accept their situation and forgive the perpetrators. He said it helped them carry on and gave them a will to live.
In fact, Juan had told me that his faith in God was an important factor in how he dealt with his situation. It helped him not dwell on what happened. He said he felt as though God was looking after him.
Luis said that basically, these people focused on their daily needs and asked for very little.
However, Luis said that even though people often seemed to be coping on the surface, there was a lot of internalised rage.
He said the damage of over forty years of conflict was seeping down the generations. Children who lost their parents in the fighting sometimes joined one of the armed groups to act out vendettas against those who had destroyed their families. Luis called this “an endless chain of hate”.
Caught in the crossfire
Read part 1
What amazed me most was that someone had plumbed a toilet into a wooden shack with a tin roof. It seemed a strangely permanent thing to install in a place that should have been a temporary home for one of the many families in Colombia who had fled their homes because of violence.
But I suppose when you’ve lost your home, job and security and you’ve been displaced for eight years, your precarious position in life starts to take on a sense of permanence.
The shack belonged to Diego* and he lived in it with his wife, two children and grandson. He was going to be the part of the focus of Caritas’ documentary on Colombia’s displaced.
On my second day in Los Rios*, I followed the film crew down a steep hill to Diego’s home. Diego had been in the house for four years. A tube supplied running water and the family had hung up ornaments and religious pictures. There was even a sewing machine. A fluffy white rabbit in a hutch out back completed the image of domesticity. I asked what his name was and someone pointed out that he didn’t have one as he was going to be eaten.
Diego used to be a bus driver about 100 miles away from Los Rios*. He was sometimes made to transport FARC guerrillas. Later, they asked him to take messages too. The paramilitaries in the area started to threaten Diego and his colleagues, accusing them of collaborating with the guerrillas. Diego’s wife persuaded him to take their family away to a safer place.
Now Diego lives a hand-to-mouth existence. He’s helped by the local Caritas in the area. The Church provides the land that he lives on, he is sometimes given work driving for Caritas and his wife works in the centre’s kitchen.
Paramilitaries in Colombia have a reputation for torture, “disappearances” and killings, while left-wing guerrilla groups are known to kidnap, plant landmines and kill people.
Diego’s story was similar to others that I heard while visiting a camp for those who had fled their homes outside Los Rios. Thirty families had been living there in wooden-framed constructions covered by green plastic sheeting for the previous eight months or so.
Juan* was building a house on the council-owned land after having to leave his own home in Putumayo because it was located on a crossroads where the army, the guerrillas and paramilitaries often clashed.
Another man I spoke to said that the army had asked him to leave his home as it was dangerous because there was lots of fighting; while another family said they too had left their home because of fighting.
Everyone had been scared. Scared enough to leave their homes and jobs and go to a new town where all they had was a flimsy tent for a home, not knowing if they’d ever be able to go back to the life they knew.
Slowly, a different face of Colombia was starting to emerge and I began to realise that beyond the smiles and friendliness lay the shadows of fear and broken lives.
When I told a journalist friend I was going to Colombia for my first Caritas field trip, she looked thoughtful and said: “Colombia? It’s the most dangerous country in the world.”
As I travelled from Ipiales airport to our destination and the driver sped towards another blind curve on the wrong side of a holey mountain road, I thought she might be right.
Caritas in Rome wanted me to an accompany a film crew to the southern Colombian town of Los Rios*. They were making a film about a family that had lost their home and a landmine victim with the themes “Truth, justice and reparation”.
I hadn’t realised until a few weeks earlier that Colombia was the top country in the world for landmine accidents. It was also home to one of the largest displaced populations in the world with an estimated three million people uprooted by conflict.
It seemed strange that the only times we ever seemed to hear about Colombia in Europe was when it was something to do with cocaine.
The group I was travelling with – Maria, the director, Juan, the cameraman, Carolina, the sound recorder, Luis, my translator and Mallerly who was from Caritas Colombia and was overseeing the whole project – were all Colombian and I had seen no obvious foreigners since leaving Bogota’.
I felt like I was the only European in the whole of southern Colombia. I suppose it was only to be expected considering the UK Foreign Office website warned against travel to many of the departments there (including Nariño where I was going), with terrorism, landmines and volcanoes listed among the dangers to travellers.
It could also have been one of the reasons why Colombia’s 40 year-plus civil war barely received a mention in Western media. Also, the fact that Colombia was 126th in the 169 countries listed in the World Press Freedom index – it was stuck between Kazakhstan and Burundi – made you wonder about the news that actually managed to filter through.
However, Colombia became the top news story around the world the day after I arrived in the country.
I was in a security briefing at Caritas’ Bogota’ headquarters when someone announced that French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt had been rescued from the jungle where she had been held for over six years by left-wing FARC rebels.
I interviewed Caritas Colombia Secretary-General, Msgr Hector Fabio Henao, and while he seemed pleased about Betancourt’s new-found freedom, he cautioned against reading too much into the rescue so soon as the situation was very complicated.
Two left-wing rebel groups (FARC and ELN), one paramilitary group and the army were engaged in a conflict that seemed to be about land and resources and which was further complicated by masses of financially-lucrative coca fields which the US Government had invested billions of dollars in destroying.
Hector Fabio told me that the Church gave support to the victims of the violence, but that meant that the Church itself sometimes became a target. A week earlier, Felipe Landazury, a Caritas aid worker had been killed in Tumaco, near the Ecuador border – not far from Los Rios, where we were heading.
“Armed groups don’t understand the commitment of the Church,” said Hector Fabio. “They get confused and think that if you’re working for the victims of the conflict, you’re working against them.”
I wondered what these same groups would think about a film crew wandering about their territory, making a documentary about the victims of the violence for the European and North American Caritas aid network members. I didn’t really know what to expect during the trip.
For someone like me, who had never been to Latin America, arriving in Los Rios was like arriving in the Wild West: decrepit buildings; holey roads; people of all ages darting about helmetless on big, dusty Yamaha bikes; guinea pigs being slowly roasted on a spit by the roadside and lots of big black vultures flocking overhead.
However, after my first day in the town and after meeting some of the friendly locals and the nun who ran the local Caritas centre, I started to think that the only real danger in Colombia was the bad roads and the even worse driving…
*Names changed to protect identities