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Colombia’s peacebuilders

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.





The peacebuilders

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,” he says.

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.”

Working together

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 fighters.”

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 coast.

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 “disappearing”.

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.

No 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 coast.

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 in Barranquilla.

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 to operate.



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 generations.


Carolyn Oxlee
Carolyn Oxlee is a freelance journalist who has worked as an information delegate for the Federation.


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