Tag Archives: displaced

Desperate times for Congo’s homeless

Running away
Furaha Nijonzima, aged 31 years

Furaha Nijonzima

Furaha Nijonzima. Copyright: Cafod/Bridget Burrows.

I arrived here on 4th November. I came from Mushaki village.

I was running away from the war of Laurent Nkunda. I left because the CNDP rebels had started coming in and raping women and recruiting young boys. We thought we’d be safer away, but I was hit by the CNDP.

I’d lived in Mushaki for 10 years. This is the second time I’ve had to flee, I’m actually from Rubaye.

I’m very uncomfortable and worried here, because I’ve got 4 children, and since I left we haven’t had food, and we’re sleeping together here with 14 other families that have recently arrived at the camp.

If things get better I’d like to go back home. But only if peace comes… and as long as the CNDP aren’t there. If I could talk to the rebels I would say to the CNDP and armed groups that I’d like to go home, and please find a solution.

There are 26,000 people in Mugunga camp where Furaha has run to. More are arriving. Mushaki is 50km to the west of Goma. Furaha, her name, means Happy.

Caritas aid reaching those most in need in Congo
By Bridget Burrows, Cafod

26th November 2008

A cheer of delight went up around the crowd; the first overladen truck of desperately needed humanitarian assistance had just rumbled into the rural village of Ntamugenga, 10km from the town of Rutshuru.

The territory around this small village was rocked by some of the heaviest armed activity during the recent flash of conflict in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this month.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled for a second time, from camps that they were already sheltering in. Some ended up in rural areas, sheltering with strangers in villages.

Isolated for many weeks, they have had no help, and the situation has become desperate. “Since the last of the food I had was finished, we have collected grass to eat. Can you imagine, one month living on grass?” Mazirane Nzahera tells me, tutting and shaking her head sadly.

“Bombs were falling on the camp, too many people died, including three of my neighbours. I left with nothing but the clothes you see me wearing.”

On Monday, the first humanitarian assistance from Caritas finally reached Mazirane and 12,000 others like her, taking clothes, blankets, cooking pots, soap, and watercans to people in desperate need.

The Catholic Bishop of Goma, Faustin Ngabu was the first to hand over a blanket to an elderly lady at the front of the long queue.

Holding a megaphone, he addressed the massing crowd, saying humbly, “I know what Caritas have brought today will not remove all of your suffering, but we hope it will alleviate some of it.”

Bishop Ngabu, Bishop of Goma for over thirty-five years, has seen all of the long conflict that has afflicted the population in his care, but he says, “Caritas Goma has confronted difficult situations, but unlike others, the Church cannot leave the people.”

Michel Monginda, a Caritas aid worker, said, Although the situation is currently calmer and we have been able to deliver humanitarian aid to these people today, thousands of people in remote areas still have not been reached and need our help.”

For Mazirane, the future is uncertain, “I’m very afraid, I have nothing to eat in my village, and I don’t know if we will continue to get humanitarian assistance. Our trust is in God.”

By Bridget Burrows, Cafod
20 November 2008

Covered in flour up to his elbows, Jimmy tries in vain to wipe some of the white dust off his black face, before laughing and greeting me.

Jimmy Luputu is working for Caritas Goma. He is shouting out orders to a long queue, and pouring out heavy sacks of flour into the waiting hands of the hungry people in front of him.

Tens of thousands of people are still sheltering in camps, or are forced to hide in the forest because of continued fighting between armed groups in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Made to abandon their homes, many have moved numerous times, trying to find safety and thus avoid being caught in the crossfire between fighting factions.

Caritas Internationalis members are supporting Caritas Goma with emergency survival kits such as blankets, cooking pots and soap – reaching people in remote areas that have received no humanitarian assistance yet.

In the Mugunga camp, 20 minutes outside Goma, food and shelter are provided. But away from their farms, the people here are stuck in limbo, unable to work and feed themselves.

The recent escalation of conflict in the east of the country is prolonging their suffering.

As long as armed groups in the region continue to vie for position, these people can’t return home and get on with their lives.

As the population continues to be terrorised, one wonders why the armed groups can’t put down their guns and let the people live in peace.

With each armed faction having its own interests for living its life by the gun, it becomes easier for the next group to want to achieve its goals by picking up a gun too.

Attempts at ceasefires and disarmaments have been negotiated – even as recently as the beginning of this year – but, so far, each one has ended in failure.

In the meantime, people such as Jimmy will keep helping to protect the affected population.

The crowd of displaced people in front of him queues patiently, not even moving an inch when it begins to rain heavily.

Jimmy continues his operation despite the soaking. The water runs down his face and washes away the flour.

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Filed under Africa, Conflicts and Disasters, Congo, Democratic Republic of, Emergencies, Peacebuilding

Congo Crisis

Farewell Goma
By Alexander Bühler, Caritas Germany
Goma, 17th November 2008

It is my last day in Congo. Tomorrow I will fly back from Kigali to Germany. The strongest impression which I will take home with me is the amazing friendliness of the people here. The people are nice, honest and polite, despite the madness of war. I forgot my belongings a few times – including my wallet – and every time somebody came running after me to hand back my things.

Yesterday Caritas experienced a few difficulties with the distribution of food. On the one hand side the authorities tried to prevent the allocation, on the other hand side many residents mixed with the refugees to receive food supplies as well. As it happens the residents also need assistance especially because many of them have taken in refugees and support these as well. Despite this small turmoil the Caritas employees were able to calm the situation and continue the distribution.

Also in the refugee camps of Rutshuru and Kibuma the Caritas employees conducted a large distribution of food: 20 rations for about 60.000 and 43.000 people in total. Today it is the turn of Mugunga I and II as well as the neighbourhood camp Bulengo. About 1,300 tons of beans, flour, oil and salt are distributed here. Just enough to survive. The provisions from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) will last at the most until January.

Swimming in Goma
By Alexander Bühler, Caritas Germany
Goma, 16 November 2008

As strange as it may sound, early this morning I swam in the Kivu Lake. Despite swimming amid the chaos and flashes of war, it was basically like normal everyday life. On the street, dressed up beauties walked by on one side while heavily armed soldiers with machine guns and grenade throwers stood on the other.

Yesterday, Caritas colleagues supplied food to those refugees who up till now had received nothing. The government has prohibited relief organisations to distribute food that is not yet registered. Caritas has now simply defied these instructions because the refugees need urgent assistance. A school which held 2,000 people just two weeks previously, now holds 4,500. On the weekend they can stay in the school throughout the day whereas during the week they must leave the school grounds before the lessons begin.

Land for the future
By Alexander Bühler, Caritas Germany
(Part 10 – scroll down for other parts)

Goma, 14 November 2008

Today I am visiting the Don Bosco Centre for Children. Only women and children are sheltered in the compound area. There are around 1,500 people here but over 400 more have arrived over the last four days. There are countless more refugees outside the compound. The women and children now occupy the whole sports field in the Centre. Caritas distributed food, blankets and plastic tarpaulins in collaboration with WFP and around 4,500 people receive food daily.

Approximately 800 refugees sleep, eat and live in a large hall with an offset roof which stands around 8m high. In the free space under the roof people have put up plastic tarpaulins to protect themselves from the cold and windy nights. However, one of the negative side effects is the stale air which robs you of your breath. The noise inside is deafening and the atmosphere depressing. There is no employment at all for the refugees. They sit for hours talking and talking, women are changing babies’ nappies or standing in the queue when food is being distributed. There isn’t more to do in a refugee camp.

On the way back with Roger, my motorcycle taxi driver, we see a strange scene: on a black field of volcanic rock which was created by a large eruption in 2002, the residents of the area mark their claims to the land with small piles of stones. The catastrophe destroyed a third of the city and now the people are trying to secure some land for the future.

Seeking protection
By Alexander Bühler, Caritas Germany
(Part 9 – scroll down for other parts)

Goma, 13 November 2008

In North Kivu, the size of the military and political ‘black hole’ vacuum spreads out. No one can say how much people endure there.

In this desolate situation, the relief organisations try as much as possible to bring supplies to the refugees. Caritas Goma accompanied an aid convoy to Rutshuru to distribute food and then went on to a further four refugee camps.

Today, in torrential rain, I visited the Don Bosco Centre for Children, which is supplied by Caritas Goma. The former child soldiers that fled from the north three days earlier are also accommodated here. The Don Bosco Centre is the most secure place here. Hundreds of refugees gather around such comparatively well protected centres in the hope that the protection radiates through the walls.

Violence everywhere
By Alexander Bühler, Caritas Germany
(Part 8 – scroll down for other parts)

Goma, 12 November 2008

After the attack in Kanyabayonga, MONUC units and government commanders were deployed to the area to defuse the situation. Several of the inhabitants of Kanyabayonga are hesitant to return to the villages. Others wait for the chance to be evacuated from the danger zone. In the meantime, the former child soldiers have arrived here in Goma. 

I have spoken with a twelve-year-old boy who told me about his time as a child soldier. The children learnt to shoot machine guns and grenade launchers. Those who didn’t adapt or fit in were shot. The children were forced to watch executions or worse, to fire the guns themselves.

Violence is everywhere. The long and bloody history in this region of the Congo has wounded the society deeply. Violence against women is a problem of extreme magnitude. It is not only the brutal militia committing rape and torture. The Caritas team in Goma reported 39 cases of rape in one day. Ten of these were committed in the refugee camp Mugunga. In the refugee camp Kibati, rape can be prevented as other refugees can help women in time.

Former child soldiers flee in fear
By Alexander Bühler, Caritas Germany
(Part 7 – scroll down for other parts)

Goma, 11 November 2008
Yesterday, marauding soldiers raided the Caritas Centre for former child soldiers in Kanyabayonga during a random attack. Kanyabayonga lies in the north from Kivu, a distance of about 150 km from Goma.

The soldiers targeted several villages in their raid which included the attack on the centre. Four Caritas staff were assaulted. The children fled in fear while the soldiers chased and tormented them in their escape. It is only with luck that no children were injured or kidnapped. The soldiers pilfered all food, blankets and mattresses from the Caritas Centre. The children were clearly frightened and agitated on their return to the centre that evening. The staff of Caritas Goma have taken the children to Goma and are seeking accommodation in the Don Bosco children’s home.

There is fierce conflict today in the surrounding areas of Goma. Heavy artillery combat is underway behind the Caritas-supplied refugee camp Kibati.  We still have no idea how many victims have been claimed by the fighting so far.

There are reports of heavy fighting in Masisi (northwest from Goma) and in the north from Rutshuru, in Kiwanja. People are being forced to flee from places they once fled to. In Kiwanja, only 1,000 families remain from a refugee camp since the fighting began yesterday. The people in the middle of the conflict zone are cut off from any aid or relief. Today, Caritas Goma is attempting to bring an aid convoy to the refugee camps.

Life in the camps
Part 6 (Read parts below)

Goma, 10 November 2008

Caritas food distribution in a camp near Goma. Copyright: Caritas Congo

Rumours that the Congolese Army may launch an offensive against Nkunda’s Tutsi rebels tomorrow or the following day is causing tension. If the rumours are true we foreign staff will once again be evacuated to Rwanda.

Today, I was with a German television crew in a refugee camp here in the city. One week ago there were 2,500 in the camp and now the number has grown to 4,500. They have been sleeping in a school where they share a mere 28 latrines; One per 160 people. By day, lessons take place here as usual and in the evening the refugees stream in to spend the night. The refugees spend their days wandering through the city scrounging for something to eat.

The government has forbidden the supply of camps inside Goma. It is clear that the refugees are not welcome to stay here. On the other hand, it could be a method to prevent the impoverished population of Goma becoming dependent of relief supplies. Nevertheless, the staff of Caritas Goma endeavours to bring aid in to the city in any way possible.

In Kibati and the other refugee camps in the surrounding countryside, Caritas Goma has been distributing further supplies of food, blankets and plastic tarpaulins with the help of around 100 people.

Evacuated for one day
Part 5 (Read parts 1, 2, 3 & 4)
By Alexander Bühler, Caritas Germany

Goma, 9 November 2008

On Friday, the UN’s humanitarian officer, OCHA; arranged the evacuation of all international aid staff from the conflict zone. The Director of Caritas Goma brought me by jeep over the border to Rwanda, along with staff from an English member of Caritas (CAFOD). The drive over the border took just 10 minutes but is far enough to be outside the immediate danger area.

OCHA recommended the evacuation after violent combat erupted in Kibati between the Congolese Army and Nkunda’s Tutsi rebels. United Nations representatives feared that army soldiers would attack civilians and loot the city during withdrawal through Goma. Fortunately, the MONUC peacekeepers safeguarded the city from this very real threat.

The conflict is becoming more complex. Of the troops involved in these combats, 50 military observers and 200 soldiers from Angola were fighting on the side of the Congolese army. There is danger that the war will attract further international participation and that the whole central Africa region could explode in conflict.

Goma, 7 November 2008

Today, a Caritas support convoy should have set off for the refugee camp Rutshuru but the trip was called off due to the worsening security situation. The staff are frustrated. Yesterday, the militia attacked a village near Rutshuru and reportedly killed civilians.

Another terrible incident occurred in the refugee camp Kibate which lies within the imemdiate area of a Nkunda rebels post. Panic broke out as the militia opened fire on a passing aeroplane. Masses of people ran harum-scarum fearing for their lives.

There are always new refugee pathways with endless amounts of displace people in search of safety. Stories of attack, rape, murder and looting are commonplace.

It cannot often be determined who is fighting against whom or which of the marauding gangs is responsible for an attack. The Mai-Mai militia, for example, are civilians by day and by night form a kind of militia group to fight Nkunda’s rebels.

One thing is clear: the refugees are suffering and hungry. Provisions are constantly decreasing and that affects everyone including us here at Caritas Goma.

 Translation by Olivia Simmons

A humanitarian disaster looms

Food running out in the refugee camps in eastern Congo
Part 4 (Read parts 1, 2 & 3)
By Alexander Bühler, Caritas Germany

Read “Precarious lives in Congo’s camps” below
By Guy-Marin Kamandji

People uprooted by violence in eastern Congo. Alexander Buehler

People uprooted by violence in eastern Congo. Copyright: Caritas/Alexander Buehler

Midday at camp Mugunga 1. Masses of refugees stand around the square as Caritas staff and representatives from the UN distribute food. For hours on end, a volunteer calls out the names of the lucky ones over the megaphone. They are registered on the camp list and are now entitled to collect their rations. A few minutes earlier, 32-year-old Rwendo Kasao was called. Now she is standing in a queue for her ration of corn flour.

The sun has been beating down on the young mother for a few hours now. She has her 2-year-old, Munihire on her back and beads of sweat running down her face. Officially, it is the rainy season but the clouds are yet to be seen this morning. It is only in the afternoon that the torrential rains begin.

For one year, Rwendo Kasao has called Mugunga camp her home. She lives together with her husband and two children in a dwelling for which the name ‘hovel’ would be an overstatement. It is merely a frame of sticks and branches with a plastic tarpaulin flung over the top.

In this glorified tent she sleeps, eats and cooks with her entire family in a space which is approximately 1.7m high, 3m long and 2m wide.

Despite these conditions, Kasao thinks of herself as lucky because she, like 26,269 other refugees here in camp Mugunga 1, is a registered refugee and is entitled to ten days rations; 50g salt, 1/3l cooking oil, 1.2k beans and 4k flour, per family member. The refugees were last counted in mid-October and nobody knows how many have arrived since the fighting in the last week and days. The official policy is maintained, if you are not registered, you receive nothing.

The population of many refugee camps has exploded. In the camp Kibati 1 the number of refugees rose from 5,517 to 65,900 and in Kibati II from 597 to 135,022. On Monday, the UN Security Forces estimated that by now, 1.25 million people have escaped to the region of north Kivu, an area the size of France. Approximately 20,000 refugees live in the city of Goma in abandoned buildings. Two thousand of them are children who fled without parents and are therefore less able to find supplies.

Caritas attempts to distribute medicine and food to these refugees who are not yet registered and therefore cannot receive rations through official means. During the day, people wander the streets of Goma and trying to scrounge up some food. In the night they must sleep on a plastic sheet in crowded spaces. Sometimes there are 200 refugees cramped together in a 40m² space.

Children march for days with those fleeing their villages for the city. There are thoroughly exhausted, hungry and suffering diarrhoea, meningitis and other illnesses.

The numbers which would paint a more accurate picture of the misery are missing. Food is coming through too slowly. Of the two supply routes, one is across Uganda and the other is blocked because of the fighting. The existing supplies will not last for long. A humanitarian disaster looms.

Translation by Olivia Simmons

A Wave of fear in Goma
Alexander Bühler, Caritas Germany
Part 3 (Read parts 1 & 2 below)

Goma, November 5, 2008

The situation is devastating. No one can definitely say how many people in total have fled their homes because of violence but it is clearly over 1 million.

Today, violent conflict erupted between the militia and government forces in the region of Rutshuru. The road to the refugee camp Mugunga was not directly affected so I could go there by car.

Last week, the camp was looted by government troops. The soldiers had emptied out the entire supply store, taking with them tarpaulins, blankets and food. Fresh supplies have arrived in the meantime, but had been running out. People were hungry and malnourished andso susceptible to illness. Cholera has already claimed its first life. The immediate importance  is food.

The new arrivals in the camp will be registered weekly and only those who are registered receive assistance. There are simply too many to process at one time. the receive a tarpaulin, with which one can build a 3m² shelter, and a food ration. The ration per person for ten days is 50g salt, 330ml oil, 1.2kg beans and 4kg flour. Drinking water is guaranteed.  

Goma, November 4, 2008
Part 2

The city is gripped by an incredibly tense atmosphere today. The rebel militia of theGeneral Nkunda can march in at any time and take over the city of Goma. While more and more UN peacekeeping forces are being flown in, the rebels still remain strong. With each helicopter that passes overhead a wave of fear sweeps the city.

The refugee situation in the city is worse than in the outlying areas. People are scattered all around in makeshift camps and buildings are hopelessly overcrowded. In the school buildings where people are seeking refuge, there is a mere one latrine per 1000 people.

As soon as it is possible, I will set off to the refugee camp of Mugunga. I was last there in March accompanying a delivery of food from Caritas Goma. At that time, I was struck by the incredible calm and composure of the refugees. They had such patience standing in the endless queues waiting to receive stamps and rations of food.

The camp is on a bed of volcanic rock, the ground is black and the sharp stones pierced their bare feet. The majority of refugees sleep on the ground with only a thin blanket to cover themselves. Despite the difficulties, they have built tents from sticks and sheets of plastic, thatched mattresses and they do what they can to provide for themselves.

I am very anxious to see what awaits us all tomorrow. The numbers in the refugee camps are multiplying rapidly. Camp Kibati I has grown from 5,500 refugees in June to 65,000 today. In Kibati II numbers have jumped from 597 to 135,000 over the same time period.

Again, the most desperate need in these camps is food.  The food supplies from Uganda are blocked and the only relief aid arriving at the moment is from Tansania over Bukavu. Isolated convoys on this path run the risk of attack. Assistance needs to be flown in but a lack of money prevents this.

The flow of refugees is constant. Long lines of refugees stream in three directions; to the northwest, the northeast and south toward Bukavu. Caritas Butembo has attempted to create a route to provide supplies for the refugees.

Goma November 2, 2008
Part 1

Altogether, there are 1.6 million refugees in eastern Congo. Roughly 150,000 to 250,000 remain around Goma and in the city itself there are several thousands.  Those still living here are completely vulnerable as a regular route to bring supplies into Goma is not available.

Today, I have seen three of the many refugee camps; including one orphanage with 800 refugees and a compound from two parishes, where between 1000 and 1500 refugees live. The hungry and weak refugees had fled here with only the clothes on their back. 

The situation is dreadful; there is no supply of medicine, 800 people share one water tap, the latrines are overflowing and hygiene is virtually nonexistent.

There is only enough food for four days in the compound. It isn’t clear whether humanitarian aid will reach here in time. The scarcity of food is causing a dramatic hike in prices. The cost of one bag of peas increased from US $60 to US $100. Two tankers of water, the required amount to supply 800 refugees, costs US $500.

Some 200 people are crowded together in one 40m² refugee camp. There are scores of children in the camps and new babies are being born daily. The rainy season is cold with the temperature currently at 13 degrees. Illness such as respiratory disease, diarrhoea, fever and meningitis are spreading. In one camp in Kibati, 17 people have died in the past three days and Goma has reported its first cases of Cholera.

The 40 staff of Caritas Goma are currently working to organise additional accommodation to shelter the refugees. Essential relief cannot be given due to the lack of humanitarian aid, water, food and medical supplies. The Caritas staff are taking action but are clearly traumatised by the violence.

There is an imminent danger that the city will be taken by Nkunda’s forces.

Precarious lives in Congo’s camps
By Guy-Marin Kamandji
Head of Communications at Caritas Congo

Guy-Marin Kamandji helps a widow at a camp near Goma in June 2008

Guy-Marin Kamandji helps a widow at a camp near Goma in June 2008

The difficulties that the international community have experienced in delivering emergency aid to two million displaced people in North Kivu, have reminded me of how precarious life is in Congo’s camps.

I still can’t forget the misery and suffering that I saw in June 2008 in the camp of Nzulo, about 20 kilometres from Goma.

As the head of communications for Caritas Congo, I had to cover, along with my colleagues from Secours Catholiques/Caritas France, the distribution of supplies to 2,450 families uprooted by violence. The food we distributed came from the World Food Programme.

What shocked me initially was the distress of the people who weren’t registered and wouldn’t receive a monthly ration as a result. I tried to appeal to the people in charge of the operation but it didn’t help. The lists were already made up and the tokens to receive the food given out.

However, it wasn’t just food they needed. These people who were homeless needed water and wood so they could cook their food rations, which consisted of maize, beans, vegetable oil and salt. Lake Kivu and the Virunga national park were within their reach. They would have to go down on to Lake Kivu, two hundred metres from the camp, for water.

“Twelve people died from using this water, 500 metres away from the camp. After that, the nurse gave us water purifying tablets,” the president of the displaced committee told me at the time.

Getting wood wasn’t much safer as it meant a four hour walk to go and look for dead shrubs in Virunga national park.

“But there are always armed men lying in wait, ready to rape the women who go there. There’ve been so many rapes that we’ve lost count,” said one woman.

I found the story of a widow in her sixties who had an injured leg and lived with her six-year-old grand-daughter particularly upsetting.

She had accidentally set on fire the flimsy hut that other homeless people had built for her. She had lost all her meagre possessions in the fire.

“I don’t even know how I’ll be able to cook the rations they gave me,” she told me as she cried.

Deeply saddened by this story, when I got back that evening I decided to use the US$100 I’d got for my assignment expenses in North Kivu to give what little help I could to the woman.

The day after, I paid US$30 to rent a taxi bike so I could go to Goma’s main market and buy her the basic necessities: two cooking pots, two plates, three glasses, a blanket, a pair of sandals for her grand-daughter, a big mat and I paid five dollars so she could cover her house with straw and shelter from the winds coming in off the lake.

I spent all my money and didn’t even have enough to get to the airport. In the end, I managed to get a lift with a Caritas colleague so I could get home to Kinshasa.

By Caritas Congo Staff

Many people are arriving in the towns exhausted by hunger and that they’ve walked many miles to escape the violence. Vehicles are rare.

Caritas is continuing to work, carrying out identification of people who’ve moved and evaluating their needs so that it can scale up the response.

In some areas, such as Goma it has been completed, where in Butembo-Beni a lack of phone lines over the last three days has made things difficult.

Secretary General of Caritas Congo Dr Bruno Miteyo has called for supporters of Caritas to pray that peace returns.

Dr Miteyo also welcomes letters of solidarity that Caritas Congo can share with their staff in the area. Address the letters to Caritas Congo, B.P. 3258, Kinshasa-Gombe, Democratic Republic of Congo

And Caritas Congo has also called for financial resources in order to assist the vulnerable victims of the atrocities.

Download our prayer card for peace in Congo (English, French)

Evacuated for one day
By Alexander Bühler, Caritas Germany
Goma, 9 November 2008

A Caritas food distribution outside Goma

A Caritas food distribution outside Goma

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Filed under Africa, Conflicts and Disasters, Congo, Democratic Republic of, Emergencies, Peacebuilding

Colombia: Fear and cold-blooded killing in the mountains

By Michelle Hough
Part 4
See below for parts 1,2 and 3
Caritas/Michelle Hough
Credit: Caritas/Michelle Hough

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.

Forgiveness or an endless chain of hate?
Part 3
Read parts 1 and 2

Credit: Caritas/Michelle Hough

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
Part 2
Read part 1

Copyright: Caritas/Michelle Hough

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.

Terrorism, landmines, volcanoes…and bad driving

Part 1

Maria Libertad Mejia

Photo: Maria Libertad Mejia

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

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