By Carolyn Oxlee
Just as Rome was not built in a day,
so laying the foundations of peace is a slow and painstaking
process. The Colombian Red Cross has made it its mission to
build a violence-free society — and is doing so with all
of the courage and patience such a task demands.
“Colombia is beautiful, isn’t it? And green,”
said the taxi driver. “And violent,” he added.
So much so, that everyone in Colombia is quick to tell you
just how violent it is. But Colombian violence is perhaps
not quite what one would imagine — largely because it
is so pervasive. In addition to the much publicised drug-related
violence, there is the lesser-known but very real political
and guerrilla violence, as well as an alarming level of common-law
violence that includes delinquency, murderous feuds between
families and intra-family conflict characterised by the abuse
of women and children.
A typical edition of the newspaper El Espectador carries
a story of a two-year-old girl who was shot in the head by
a group of men firing randomly at her family’s house
from a passing taxi. She was the third victim in this family
engaged in a vendetta with another family. The same day, it
reports that police found six armed rocket launchers aimed
at the Ministry of Defence and carries a photograph of the
mayor of Bogotá being “vaccinated” against
violence to publicise a day against violence that he had proclaimed.
Violence has been an integral part of Colombian society for
most of this century and, while recently it may have received
less international attention than the genocide in Rwanda or
the mass killings in Bosnia, it has been constant over the
years. The rate of violent deaths is the highest in the world,
with 40,000 people killed in 1995 alone.
Politically, Colombia has been divided between liberals and
conservatives since 1910. Local politics is a high-risk business
and political murders are frequent. Three guerrilla factions
operate in Colombia. Originally, theirs was a fight against
social injustice, poverty and corruption, all of which are
rife in Colombia, and they formed to protect their communities
and provide services that the government didn’t deliver.
Some claim they have now become quite devoid of any ideology
although others say this is not the case.
In any event, there are conflicts throughout much of the
country between the government forces and the guerrillas.
In addition, paramilitary groups, or self-defenders, have
sprung up to defend themselves and their terrain from the
guerrillas in areas where there were no government armies
protecting them. Fighting between the various armed groups
can take the form of individual clashes, group skirmishes
or blatant massacres.
Cocaine adds its proverbial two cents to the long-standing
political tensions with spine-chilling results. Under strong
pressure from the United States, where much of the cocaine
goes, the government is trying to curb drug exports, but the
traffickers want to protect their wealth and their power and
violence is used against anyone who crosses their path.
In the midst of the violence, with its eyes wide open, is
the Colombian Red Cross (CRC). “Colombians are violent,”
Dr Guillermo Rueda, President of the CRC, says simply. Behind
his candid admission lies a profound understanding of the
phenomenon, an understanding that allows the dynamic National
Society that he heads to work against it; to dedicate itself
in fact to building peace.
“Peace is not just about winning a war,” Dr Rueda
explains. “It has many factors — economic, sociological,
political and educational — so it must be achieved little
by little, and with a lot of patience.”
With this in mind, the CRC does not plead with warring factions
or families to stop fighting. Instead, it tries through a
wide variety of programmes to tackle the causes of violence.
Heading the list are ignorance, poverty and damaged childhoods,
and CRC efforts in the dissemination of international humanitarian
law, development and reaching out to children are going a
long way, slowly but surely.
Teaching international humanitar-ian law (IHL) to the warring
factions and civilians caught up in the fighting is an important,
if not immediately obvious, contribution to building peace.
“The essence of IHL is how to behave during war,”
Roland Bigler, ICRC dissemination delegate in Bogotá,
explains. “But, if the belligerents follow the rules,
the conflict is restrained and this means that, in the event
of peace, certain roads are already paved for establishing
trust and restoring order.”
Dr Guillermo Rueda – A lifetime commitment
Dr Guillermo Rueda broke ground by becoming the first heart
surgeon in Colombia. Then he followed in his father’s
footsteps by becoming the president of the Colombian Red
Cross. All his life he has combined a successful medical
career with a devotion to the Red Cross and he has been
the driving force behind one of the most efficient National
Societies in Latin America for the past 18 years. He is
gentle, unassuming and very likeable.
After studying medicine and specialising in surgery, he
spent three years working in Argentina, then went to the
United States in 1952 to train as a heart surgeon. When
he returned to Colombia, he travelled all over the country
performing operations. Thousands of operations later, he
retired from surgery at the age of 65.
For most of his career, he was based at the San Jose hospital
in Bogotá, which he still fondly refers to as “his”
hospital, the way a father talks of a child. And not without
reason, for he is the chairman of the board there. Yet he
could be called one of its sons, as it was the San Jose
hospital where he was born in 1923.
His Red Cross career began at the age of 12 when his father
became the president of the CRC and his mother used to organise
events for Red Cross week in May. He started by teaching
first aid, then organised field hospitals and trained staff,
and went on to teach international humanitarian law, which
he considers essential in a country with Colombia’s
problems of violence. “It’s not just a matter
of teaching it; it’s a matter of practising it,”
The CRC has achieved a great deal under his leadership,
although he is quick to credit his predecessor who, he emphasises,
left him with a strong Society. He cites his main achievements
as building up 11 blood banks, increasing the capacity of
the CRC to respond to Colombia’s natural and man-made
disasters, and safeguarding the neutrality of his volunteers.
He became the vice president of the CRC in l962, then the
president in 1978. But his career has also stretched far
into the Movement. He was a vice president of the Federation
(then League) from 1981 to 1985, then the chairman of its
development commission. He was also the head of the Federation’s
Americas department for one year and a member of the peace
commission for 10 years. At the ICRC, he was the chairman
of its finance committee for 10 years. He is currently a
member of the Standing Commission.
His challenge in the CRC is to continue to develop and
increase its capacity to help people. His vision for the
region is that all National Societies may one day be able
to contribute substantially to the overall well-being of
their countries. He has a wife, Sonia, three children and
seven grandchildren. One of his sons is involved with the
Red Cross. Would he like him to follow in his footsteps?
“It would be nice,” he says, “but it is
up to him.”
Spreading awareness of IHL also provides an excellent opportunity
for the Movement to work together. The CRC has been disseminating
IHL to the government armed forces and to civilians for many
years, but they are not able to reach guerrilla forces because
Colombian law forbids its nationals to have any contact with
guerrilla or paramilitary groups. The ICRC is allowed by the
government to have contacts with all warring factions, and
so carries out dissemination to guerrillas and paramilitaries.
The ICRC delegation in Colombia became operational in the
early l990s, but increased its presence to 30 delegates in
1995 in response to increasing violence. Because it has greater
access to conflict-riven areas, it has its own specific programmes
mainly aimed at preventing excesses against the civilian population.
Its ability to operate in Colombia has been greatly helped
by the fact that the CRC is very strong and has a good reputation
both among the authorities and the general public. The CRC
is generally regarded as one of the most efficient National
Societies in Latin America. Good leadership and a solid funding
base thanks to the national lottery over the past 20 years
have enabled it to develop well.
Not surprisingly, the relationship between the CRC and its
Swiss colleagues is regarded by both sides as cooperative
and fruitful and joint efforts for 1996 cover training, dissemination,
assistance for health brigades and displaced people, and institutional
development. The ICRC also has a good relationship with the
Colombian government, and a memorandum of understanding was
signed in February assuring the ICRC of its contacts with
all warring factions.
Urabá, the hot spot
Nowhere is the spirit of cooperation and peacebuilding more
crucial than in Urabá, Colombia’s “hot
spot” (see also p. 8). Strategically located in the
northwest of Colombia, it adjoins Panama. As it also links
the Caribbean with the Pacific ocean, there are rumours of
building a second canal there, and there is talk of possible
oil reserves in this mostly flat land characterised by banana
plantations. Much of it had been in guerrilla hands for the
past 20 years until the paramilitaries started a push in 1993.
In Urabá alone, there are 60,000 displaced people
who left their villages progressively as control passed from
one faction to another. Here the ICRC and the CRC, with financing
from the Norwegian Red Cross, recently launched a large-scale
relief operation to assist people in the early days after
their displacement. The CRC
then helps them to become fully integrated into local communities.
“An estimated total of 600,000 people have been displaced
by the war over the past five years,” explains Jorge
Ivan Lopez, director of the CRC programme in Urabá.
“Our assistance to them is essential in the peacebuilding
process — otherwise they will surely become tomorrow’s
Gunfights and checkpoints are common in Urabá and
many civilians are at risk, with accusations of collaboration
painted for the slightest reason. “One day a man knocked
at my door and asked for a glass of water. The next day, the
other side came and accused me of collaborating,” says
Arminda, 47, who left her home a year ago and now lives on
the edge of Necocli, a town of 20,000 on the Gulf of Urabá
In Necocli, Red Cross volunteers from health and emergency
brigades visit displaced people. As well as providing medical
and relief assistance, they play games
with the young children and give health education talks to
the adults. Many of the volunteers themselves have suffered
the effects of violence, persecution, or relatives simply
Wilson, 27, the leader of the Necocli branch of the CRC,
lost his mother when she was shot dead a year ago after being
robbed. In many cases, this would prompt an eldest son to
join the other side and seek revenge. But Wilson knew this
was not the answer. “Revenge wasn’t going to compensate
for the death of my mother. You can’t seek revenge,
otherwise you just keep fuelling the war. They will come back
and kill someone else,” he says wisely.
peace in poverty
“Our action is development, our presence is peace.”
This CRC motto demonstrates its understanding of the critical
link between want and violence. One of the most important
causes of the conflict in Colombia is, of course, poverty.
Some 15 million people live below the poverty line and three
million live in extreme poverty, which amounts to more than
half the total population of 33 million.
To help alleviate the vulnerability associated with poverty,
the CRC launched a community development programme two years
ago in five regions around the country. One of these is Mesolandía,
a poor suburb of Barranquilla, the main port on the Caribbean
The 4,500 inhabitants of Meso-landía live in rows
of one-storey houses with only basic furniture. The roads
are uneven rocky earth, the children are all barefoot and
many wear only underpants. Most of the men eke their living
out of nighttime fishing in the cloudy brown waters of the
lagoon. A recent university study found that 75 per cent of
the population earned less than $90 a month, putting them
well below the poverty line.
Conditions in Mesolandía made for prostitution, alcoholism
and a high level of unemployment, all of which fuel violence
and drug addiction. Juvenile delinquency, theft and family
violence were common; women were mistreated both verbally
and physically, and children were often hit, or sent to beg
at the airport with the threat of no food if they failed to
bring home money. Child prostitution was organised by fathers.
Today, thanks to the CRC programme, differences are already
noticeable. General violence and family violence have both
been significantly reduced. “The Red Cross has created
in these people a feeling of belonging to their community,
an understanding that they have got to use their own resources
to move forward,” said Mirella Viral of the CRC branch
The success of the programme is due to the fact that the
community pursues its own development, with the CRC acting
as a facilitator. The CRC began by gathering a group of key
people in the community, asked them what their problems were
and what solutions they wanted. The CRC then took the ideas
to local people of influence — the mayor, doctors, professors
and industrialists — for support. The 25 key people
questioned became leaders and are responsible for organising
and implementing the programme which covers literacy, health,
infrastructure, income generation, the family, culture/recreation
and ecology/disaster preparedness (the area is subject to
flooding from the lagoon). Most importantly, the CRC plans
to pull out at the end of 1996, leaving the project in the
sure hands of the community who designed it.
“I don’t believe in assistance programmes that
collapse when you leave. For me, education is an integral
part of everything,” Maria Claudia Espindola, who designed
the scheme, says. “If you educate people, you improve
their quality of life and if people know what their rights
are, they begin to behave differently,” she adds.
She is rightfully proud of her programme’s success,
and hopes to extend it throughout the country. She believes
it contributes to peace in several ways. Encouraging the community
to work together to resolve its problems results in less tension
between people, and if problems emerge, they are resolved
by talking rather than by violence. Also, when a community
is integrated into the structure of the region, it is protected
by the government and therefore guerrillas have less space
The future, the children
There is a strong feeling in the CRC that in order to promote
peace, you must begin at the “bottom”, i.e., start
with the children in the hope of building up a future generation
that is less inclined towards violence. The most obvious place
to lay such foundations is among street children. Colombia
counts an estimated 5,000 children among its street population,
at least half of whom are in Bogotá.
Every Friday night, an ambulance and a team of about six
CRC volunteers drive to the parts of Bogotá where the
children hang out. The team offers medical and dental services
as well as social workers who talk to the children and organise
games for them such as football and jigsaws. The air in the
streets smells of urine and glue. Several of the children
keep a bottle of glue up their sleeve and sniff it every minute.
The CRC team tries in vain to teach the children the dangers
of this, but the glue numbs their hunger and their cold.
Alexis, a dentist, fills a tooth of fourteen-year-old Claudia
in the ambulance. She left home two years ago because her
mother hit her and her father kicked her out. She lives in
the street with her 11-year-old boyfriend Oscar, who is seeing
the doctor, Juan Carlos, because he hurt his back in a fall.
He works selling sweets on the buses and earns 2,000 pesos
($2) a day. Most of the children’s health problems are
dental, respiratory, skin or parasitic.
The ultimate aim of the project is to encourage the children
to leave the street and reintegrate into society, but it will
not force them. Although not all street children use violence,
many resort to it to survive. “A child without a home
is a child who will probably become a delinquent and may turn
to weapons to defend himself,” says Helena de Guevara,
a social worker who helps run the project.
Another way the CRC is reaching out to children is through
a programme called “Paco” (it stands for peace,
action and co-existence). The CRC’s youth section began
Paco in 1993 and works wherever there are high levels of violence
and intolerance. It operates through workshops for youth which
include games aimed at making them consider the other people
around them, such as having to perform tasks while tied to
another person. The aim is to teach young people to respect
each other’s rights and obligations and reduce their
susceptibility towards violence.
All roads lead to Rome
If the CRC is constructing peace one brick at a time, they
are also aware that everything they do can encourage peace
among Colombian citizens. All of their programmes then are
based on long-term goals and a solid understanding of the
phenomena they are trying to counter. The success of individual
projects to improve people’s lives cannot be doubted;
the structure is rising from the ground.
But violence is such an inherent part of Colombian life that
it will take a long time to achieve a lasting peace. Fabricio
Lopez, CRC head of dissemination and protection, says that
despite a 4,000 per cent increase in dissemination funding
and activity over the past three years, there has been no
decrease in violence. “Three years is not enough to
get results. At times, it’s like trying to sow in the
desert. But we must continue.”
Fortunately, the time and effort required for the task do
not deter any of the CRC staff or volunteers. They are doing
their best to improve the living conditions of Colombians
and to foster more tolerant and peaceful attitudes in future
Carolyn Oxlee is a freelance journalist who has worked as
an information delegate for the Federation.
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