Read a report on the issues around unsustainable mining in Colombia prepared by ABColombia, an advocacy group which includes Caritas member organisations Sciaf, Trócaire and Cafod.
Category Archives: Colombia
El Secretariado Nacional de Pastoral Social propone para la Campaña del Día Internacional de la Mujer en el año 2012 el lema: “Varón y Mujer nos creó”, que tiene como marco de referencia un acontecimiento fundamental para la vida y misión de la Iglesia, la conmemoración de los 50 años de inicio del Concilio Vaticano II. Aprovechando este motivo y uniéndolo a la conmemoración del 8 de marzo, con este mensaje se brindarán elementos para reflexionar sobre la contribución de las mujeres en la construcción social, política, económica, cultural y pastoral, a partir del reconocimiento de su dignidad y la defensa de sus derechos.Descarge el mensaje completo aquí
De ahí que, en una primera parte de este mensaje, se destacarán algunas orientaciones y enseñanzas del Magisterio Social de la Iglesia durante las últimas cinco décadas, en lo referente a la participación de las mujeres en la Iglesia y en la sociedad, en equilibrio con la par¬ticipación de los hombres. Por supuesto, este mensaje no alcanza a agotar la gran riqueza de estas enseñanzas, pero recoge algunas que se consideran más representativas.
La segunda parte, ofrecerá elementos para profundizar, desde la antropolo¬gía cristiana, lo que significa haber sido creados “varones” y “mujeres”, a imagen y semejanza de Dios. Se destacará el principio fundamental de la dignidad humana y se sugerirán aspectos para reflexionar sobre el aporte propio fe¬menino y masculino en la construcción de la Iglesia, la familia y la sociedad. De esta manera, se reitera el llamado a construir relaciones respetuosas, ar¬mónicas y de colaboración mutua entre hombres y mujeres, como contribución a la generación de una cultura de paz.
La última parte, desarrolla la propuesta de la Campaña para el año 2012, que consiste en visibilizar experiencias significativas de la Iglesia en Colombia, en el trabajo por la promoción y defensa de la dignidad humana, especialmente de las mujeres, y de cómo este trabajo se realiza en colaboración mutua con los hombres. Esta iniciativa tiene su origen en las inquietudes y sugerencias de varios y varias agentes de pastoral del país, quienes han propuesto la creación de estrategias para conocer y difundir el valioso trabajo de las comunidades locales por hacer realidad la justicia y la paz, desde una perspectiva de desarrollo humano integral, cuya expresión se materializa en las relaciones personales y la forma como éstas se proyectan en los diferentes niveles sociales.
Colombians are committing themselves to peace and defending dignity this week. A civil war in Colombia since the mid-1960′s has forced millions of people from their homes, destroyed communities and caused untold suffering.
Caritas Colombia Director Hector Fabio Henao says ‘Peace Week’ creates a space for ordinary people to identify with the peace process, it bares witness to the thousands of people who dedicate their lives to stopping the country’s decades long war and it looks to support the victims of violence.
The theme of this years: “I build peace when….” You can start by watching the offical video.
More can be found on Peace Week at the Caritas Colombia website
Floods and landslides have affected more than 1.5 million people in Colombia, killing nearly two hundred and leaving tens of thousands homeless. Many families across the country have lost everything. Read more.
The secretary general of Caritas Colombia, Msgr Hector Fabio Henao, makes an appeal for solidarity:
Read this in English
Entrevista con Monseñor Hector Fabio Henao, director de Caritas Colombia
- ¿Se han registrado últimamente mejoras en la situación que vive Colombia?
Han cambiado muchas cosas en el ambiente político del país desde cuando se conoció el nombre del próximo Presidente de la República. Además del movimiento normal de las estructuras burocráticas cuando el poder pasa de unas manos a otras, y sin desconocer que en cuestiones de fondo el nuevo gobierno es un fiel continuador del anterior, es indudable que la nueva coyuntura reporta mejorías significativas en distintos puntos.
El nuevo Presidente se ha mostrado dispuesto a dar un alivio a las tensas relaciones de Colombia con los vecinos Ecuador y Venezuela, lo cual es de suma urgencia para que mejore la calidad de vida de los habitantes de frontera y los sectores de la economía colombiana que dependen de las exportaciones a tales países. En el mismo sentido conciliador, Santos ha anunciado que buscará ponerle fin al desgastante choque de poderes entre el ejecutivo y el judicial. Continue reading
Interview with Msgr Hector Fabio Henao, Director of Caritas Colombia
Read this in Spanish
Have there been any recent improvements in the situation Colombia is going through?
Many things have changed in Colombia’s political climate since we got to know the name of the next president of the republic. In addition to the normal shifting of bureaucratic structures that occurs during a handover of power, and aware of the fact that regarding key issues the new government faithfully follows the line of the previous one, the new situation has undoubtedly brought significant improvements in various areas.
The new president has shown his willingness to ease Colombia’s tense relations with its neighbours Ecuador and Venezuela. This is a pressing issue in terms of improving the quality of life of people from border areas, and regarding the sectors of the Colombian economy that rely on exports to these countries. In the same spirit of reconciliation, Santos has announced he will seek to end the debilitating power clash between the executive and the judiciary.
The process of applying the Justice and Peace Law has led to disengagement of 31,671 paramilitaries, arising from collective demobilisation of members of these groups, of whom only 3,635 were nominated to enter judicial proceedings under this law. However, only 621 expressed their willingness to do so. The remaining 28,005 demobilised paramilitaries benefited from a de facto pardon granted via application of Decree no.128 of 2003 – amongst other laws – which allows amnesties to be granted to persons who are not subject to ongoing investigation, or who have been condemned for “non-pardonable” crimes.
As a result of individual demobilisation procedures, 20,732 people, including former paramilitaries and guerrillas, handed in their weapons between 2002 and 2010.
However, inefficient disengagement of other members of these groups and dismantlement of the drug trafficking networks, organised crime and institutional infiltration they managed, has led to the persistence of paramilitary regional structures, sporting such names as Weeds and Black Eagles, whom the government call emerging criminal gangs or BACRIM.
The Congress of the Republic shelved the initiative that aimed to extend the period of application of the Justice and Peace Law so that crimes committed since 2005 could be covered up. Application of this law enabled reporting of more than 1,200 massacres, whilst only two of those accused received the maximum eight-year sentence. The Congress’s rejection of extension of the above-mentioned initiative is good news for the victims of rape committed by the emerging criminal gangs since the official demobilisation of paramilitary groups, especially taking into account the high levels of impunity that application of Law no. 975 has entailed.
The lower courts have issued very important sentences in terms of the fight against impunity. Particularly noteworthy are the sentencing of Colonel Plazas Vega for his responsibility in the forced disappearance of people during the courthouse incidents in 1985, and the first judgement handed down by the Justice and Peace judges who sentenced the paramilitary leaders known as “Diego Venino” and “Juancho Dique” for the massacre of 11 farm workers in Mampuján, a rural area of the municipality of Maria la Baja, in the department of Bolívar, and ordered compensation for the victims. The victims’ families were awarded damages of 40 million pesos per person, and 20 million pesos was awarded to each person displaced as a result of the crime. Despite this, the Director of the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation, Eduardo Pizarro Leóngomez, proposed a 20-million-peso cap on damages per person (US$ 10,000).
Could you talk about some of the recent successes Caritas Colombia has achieved in helping the victims of violence and promoting peace in the country?
Peace-building in Colombia necessarily entails restoration of the social fabric affected by the armed conflict. National reconciliation and building a peaceful social situation must be linked to reconciliation, the building of historical memory and reparation of victims. Initiatives aimed at making amends, serving and giving back dignity to victims via processes and efforts directed at peace building are also useful in this context.
Given this state of affairs, the following actions Caritas has embarked on to achieve these objectives may be highlighted:
Raising the visibility of the victims’ situation, which goes beyond mere figures, in order to put the need to tackle processes from the victims’ standpoint on the public agenda, so that they are taken into account and considered as real players in obtaining respect for their rights.
This has been achieved thanks to various campaigns and initiatives instigated by the victims themselves, which are accompanied by Caritas, includng the days of prayer for victims at the traditional Night of Candles on 7 December, over the last six years. Plus the Human Rights Campaign, especially the one conducted last year in 2009 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which Caritas Colombia included the victims of forced disappearance – an issue that wasn’t discussed in Colombia – and managed to establish an inter-institutional round table that is helping efforts to get at the truth and accompany the families of victims of this scourge.
The advocacy work that Caritas Colombia carries out, including monitoring legislative developments; supporting public policy initiatives, such as the process concluded together with other organisations to get the Victims’ Law dealt with and approved by Congress; and also via participation in the monitoring and application of various Constitutional Court sentences that grant victims access to rights.
Spaces for accompaniment and training, paths for demanding and gaining access to rights; organisation and capacity building; community integration and comprehensive reparation that are provided for by Caritas projects, such as peace building (CONPAZ), social inclusion with a psychosocial focus (ISEP); and care of anti-personnel mine victims and unexploded ordnance prevention (MINAS MUSE).
Spaces for recovering memory via local initiatives that are being carried out in various parts of the country based on people’s actual experiences, including symbolic and collective acts of reparation. Promoted by the Church, this has made a vital contribution to healing the wounds between victims and their families, and those with their communities.
An important research project is underway aimed at identifying conditions in Colombia that might lead to humanitarian dialogues between the various actors in the conflict. This would enable regulation of the dynamics of the war via respect for international humanitarian law in which, amongst others, prisoners of war would be respected and a distinction made regarding the civilian population.
Do you think Caritas member organisations are really aware of the difficulties that Colombia is going through?
First of all, it should be made clear that Colombia is part of what have been called “forgotten conflicts”. Such conflicts have specific underlying structural causes in each of the countries experiencing them, which means they are not resolved at a given moment, resulting in prolongation of these crises. Whilst these confrontations have nothing to do with the new conflicts initiated on behalf of the global war on terror, undoubtedly part of the global agenda against terrorism has been used as an excuse by parties involved in such conflicts.
The position of the international community towards these conflicts has been ambiguous. In some cases they have adopted a low profile, and in others they have opted to intervene and destabilise situations even further, without really trying to help resolve them.
Therefore, Colombia shares very serious situations, such as displacement with Congo, the anti-personnel mines crisis with some countries in Asia, and insecurity with Haiti, amongst others. However, there is no awareness of the seriousness of our crisis, which is the worst in the Western world. Namely, the international media do not show the same degree of interest in Colombia.
On the other hand, regarding this situation, neighbouring countries and their respective Churches are highly aware of the problems facing Colombia, as they also have first-hand experience of the consequences of the conflict, in such forms as displacement and drug trafficking. On another level, most of the other Latin American countries and their Caritas organisations closely follow the Colombian conflict. For example, one of the priorities set out in the Caritas Regional Plan is to support the Colombian Church.
Finally, a part is played by European Caritas, some of which, such as Cafod, Trocaire, Secours Catholique, Caritas Spain, Caritas Switzerland, Caritas Norway and Caritas Germany, are members of the Colombia Working Group together with CRS, SELACC and Caritas Internationalis.
Together with the General Secretariat of Caritas Internationalis, the Colombia Working Group gives permanent and resolute support to the “Peace in Colombia is possible” campaign, which aims to promote the dignity and rights of the victims of armed conflict by mobilising their active participation in the reconciliation process.
The third phase of the Peace in Colombia is possible campaign, which is currently in progress, aims to respond to the situation of the victims by raising the visibility of their processes, granting them recognition and building their capacities.
The campaign breaks down into three areas of action: opinion and public ethics; truth and historical memory; and access to victims’ rights.
How do the Caritas member organisations help Colombia?
The Caritas international network is one of the world’s largest humanitarian organisations, working for integrated development in more than 200 countries, providing emergency aid, and promoting peace building, respect for human rights and protection for the environment and natural resources. Whilst suffering from a severe humanitarian crisis that has led to higher levels of inequality and poverty, Colombia has also been subjected to a long-term conflict with serious consequences, especially for the most vulnerable sectors of the population. The Caritas Internationalis network has appeared as a light of hope for thousands of men, women and children who have lost everything, and have found an opportunity in Caritas organisations to help Colombia with its problems. It has proved to be preferential and supportive help manifested via various actions aimed at overcoming the humanitarian crisis, promoting a political solution to the armed conflict, strengthening democracy, building peace, recognising victims’ rights, and cooperating to achieve social justice and human development.
This commitment has been ratified by the creation of the Caritas Internationalis Colombia Working Group, which primarily aims to strengthen the Colombian Church’s engagement in striving for peace and in vanquishing the armed conflict via common strategies and practices amongst is members.
Development of joint practice and commitment by member organisations to fulfil this objective has resulted from joint efforts that are not merely limited to a relationship between donors and beneficiaries, but rather comprise a horizontally constructed relationship based on partnership principles. This means equality between partners and adoption of criteria – such as respect for differences, transparency, trust and joint responsibility – which enables establishment of guidelines for joint learning via sharing of experiences in order to help in a more effective way. This entails a rethink of the traditional cooperation approach that goes beyond mere fundraising for humanitarian aid, in order to gain the power to contribute towards changing conditions of injustice and inequality and transforming conflicts.
Member organisations in Colombia are supporting Caritas Colombia’s efforts regarding two key strategies. Support for the first – regarding peace-building and protection of human rights – has enabled an ongoing process of human rights training with social organisations, community leaders and vulnerable groups. Likewise, in various regions progress has been made in strengthening a culture of peace, based on dialogue, respect for human rights and peaceful transformation of conflicts. The second strategy supported by member organisations regards political advocacy and public opinion. This has enabled creation of a process of political and democratic culture in the people who have supported Caritas Colombia. It has enabled bridge building and promotion of dialogue towards creating consensus between civil society and government institutions regarding formulation of public policies and seeking alternative solutions to social problems.
These efforts constantly rely on support from and monitoring by member organisations. This work is part of an international campaign that member organisations call “Peace in Colombia is possible”, which constantly appeals to Colombian society, the government and international community to support the process towards a just and negotiated peace. In this way, the advocacy efforts that are progressing not only in Colombia but also via various member organisations at international level seek to provide diplomacy in support of a negotiated cessation of the Colombian conflict, and generate development cooperation policies that facilitate negotiations, contribute to social justice and respond to the effects of displacement and its causes.
In addition to these strategies, each organisation gives various kinds of help in accordance with the needs and particularities of each region. This support aims to strengthen local communities; promote programmes regarding food security and accompaniment and protection of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities; prevent accidents caused by anti-personnel mines; take care of displaced people; promote pre natural disaster and armed action risk management and prevention programmes; as well as other social and economic initiatives.
This means that help is given not only in terms of financial support, but rather via the joint efforts of member organisations striving to raise the awareness of public opinion and governments in their respective countries regarding Colombia’s problems, in an attempt to find alternatives and multilateral commitments in order to achieve possible and lasting peace in Colombia. These efforts take the form of various actions, such as ongoing dialogue with their governments in order to view the situation in Colombia in terms of human rights and the humanitarian crisis. This entails raising awareness in Europe and the United States – so that society may obtain a close insight into the effects of armed conflict in Colombia – by promoting participatory spaces in the international arenas of civil society organisations, such as trade unions, organisations for the protection of human rights and organisations concerned with victims and ethnic minorities, as well as by creating support, solidarity and accompaniment networks on behalf of Colombia.
What would Caritas Colombia like the other Caritas member organisations to do during the Peace Week?
Participation by some Caritas representatives in the Peace Week activities would be of great value, as would publicising in all the mass media – Church and general alike – the message that Colombia wishes to broadcast to the world: let’s share with the victims of violence.
It is suggested that fora be organised on Colombia in each country, perhaps using materials sent by Caritas Colombia.
We believe this would be a good opportunity for raising awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Colombia by disseminating information that has been prepared for Peace Week via your websites.
We would be delighted to send you our slogan, educational material and all the promotional material that is prepared every year for the Peace Week, so that you can carry out awareness-raising initiatives in parishes and schools, above all during the day of prayer. We believe that the Church in the various countries could join us in prayer for the Peace Week and suggest that all Holy Masses celebrated on 5 September – the day on which the Inaugural Mass for the Colombia Peace Week is held – jointly focus their wishes for peace-building and complete reparation of victims.
Finally, during this week we would like to ask the Caritas network to focus special attention on the “Peace in Colombia is possible” campaign, whose third phase is fully underway, as mentioned in the answer to question 3
What does the solidarity of the Caritas network mean for Caritas Colombia and the Colombian people?
Caritas Colombia sees the solidarity and support of the Caritas network as an opportunity, but at the same time as a responsibility that leads us to strengthen our commitment to the neediest on the path to building the civilisation of love. We appreciate the fact that the network’s global efforts on behalf of the suffering, Colombia and its humanitarian crisis are given priority.
First and foremost, the network’s support is a source of hope for the people who are experiencing the impact of armed conflict. Each time the cooperation of the Caritas network is manifested in a remote farmhouse or a rural area, the commitment to build peace and a fairer world is strengthened.
The cooperation of the Caritas network makes us feel the presence and closeness of the international community and the Universal Church. In the midst of a conflict like ours communities often feel abandoned and isolated from the rest of the world. Therefore, the impact of cooperation is enormous, as it makes us feel like members of a single human family and realise that our brothers and sisters from other parts of the world are not indifferent to the pain we are undergoing.
Likewise, the solidarity of the Caritas network makes us feel that the love of God, which manifests itself amidst the difficulties of our history, inspires us to quicken our pace in seeking a world at peace in which the universal destination of goods is recognised.
Available in Spanish
By Michelle Hough, communications officer for Caritas Internationalis
As I ride on the bus from Rygge airport to Oslo and look at the lush green countryside and fjords, I think “Why can’t they transport some of this to Haiti, where there’s little water and very few trees?”
But the focus of my trip to Norway is Colombia, not Haiti. Nevertheless, the issue is still “What can richer countries be doing to help poorer countries in difficulty?”
Colombia is the scene of a 40-year-plus civil war. There are killings, landmines, kidnappings, massive human rights abuses and the displacement of four million people. All of this happens and yet many people in Europe aren’t aware and many politicians have other priorities rather than helping promote peace in Colombia.
Caritas Internationalis’ Colombia working group is meeting in Oslo to discuss the best way to help Colombians achieve “Truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition of crimes”. This is the aim of its advocacy campaign entitled “Peace is Possible”. Continue reading
By Martina Liebsch, Caritas Internationlis Migration Advocacy Officer
In our side event on “Forgotten refugees in Latin America”, meaning mainly refugees from Colombia in the neighbouring countries, Msgr. Hector Fabio Henao from Caritas Colombia stressed that the Bishops Conference has engaged in the issue of internal displacement due to the confrontation between guerilla groups and governments since 1994. In the presence of the Colombian ambassador he said that there is a lot of advancement in the country but also challenges to address in this conflict. There is also the need to coordinate efforts among Caritas member organisations in the region who are affected by incoming refugees from Colombia.
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