by Macarena Aguilar
Colombia is afflicted with a disease called social violence.
Each year, around 30,000 people die as a result of urban crime
and domestic violence. Alleviating the symptoms has become one
of the central priorities of the Colombian Red Cross.
Elber Fuentes is 13 years old, his body deformed by disabilities
recently diagnosed by Colombian Red Cross social welfare workers.
He lives in a little "box" made out of pieces of wood at the
Bogotá bus terminal. He says he has "friends" and "enemies".
His worst "enemy" is his grandfather, with whom he lived in
San Gil, a town north of Santander 426 kilometres from Bogotá.
"He was a drunk," says Elber despondently. "He used to threaten
me with a machete. One day he locked me in the house. He went
into another room where I knew he kept a big wooden club.
He had forgotten to take the key out of the lock, so I fled
in terror." His tone changes as he explains how he got on
a bus to the capital. "I decided to go for a ride. Anyway,
I had been thrown out of school." That was five years ago.
Since then, he has been wandering the streets of the big city
looking for "friends" to protect him. "I feel safe at the
Sometimes, my friends, the owners of the shops at the terminal,
give me food. But recently I fell out with the other kids."
He will not say why. Elber speaks earnestly and determinedly
about wanting to study and travel to the coast. But when asked
what he intends to do later in the day, next month or next
year, he moves nervously from side to side and his only reply
is "I don't know."
Elber is one of the many victims of the wide-scale and all-pervasive
violence that currently afflicts Colombia. The latest figures
published by the Ombudsman's Office reveal that in Bogotá
alone the police receive 350 calls a day reporting some kind
of domestic violence. Every year around 470,000 children are
abused, and every day, 35 children are raped. In 1999, there
were 12,485 convictions for sexual abuse within the family.
It is estimated that in the country as a whole, some 15,000
children are living and working on the streets.
"Most of the children living on the streets of Bogotá have
run away to escape beatings from parents or other family members.
In order to survive, they emulate the aggression to which
they were subjected. They form organized gangs to steal and
consume drugs, rejecting and punishing the weakest amongst
them," explains Martha Alicia Ruiz Castro, coordinator of
the Colombian Red Cross's programme for street children. This
outreach programme has been operating since 1973 and provides
support, recreational facilities and basic health care to
street children and directs them to specialized institutions
that can help them.
"Children like Elber are particularly vulnerable. Mentally
disabled children are often rejected even by their peers.
The chances of finding an institution providing specialized
care for them are very slim, but that is what we have been
trying to do for the past few weeks since we found Elber at
the bus terminal." For the time being, Elber goes to the Red
Cross premises every Friday to play with and receive care
from his new "friends".
Set in paint: Colombians
leave their handprints as a mark of their firm desire to see
an end to the violence in their country.
Show of hands
In Colombia, finding a cure for violence is the biggest challenge
facing civil society and non-governmental and governmental
organizations today. It is not just a question of finding
a peaceful resolution to the conflict that has opposed the
government and armed groups for more than four decades. Rather,
it requires reconciling an entire population exposed to violence
on an everyday basis and in its immediate environment, a violence
that is prevalent in the depressed districts and streets of
the country's cities and mirrored in domestic violence and
abuse. According to a report published by the Colombian President's
Office on Public Safety, in the 1990s, a murder was committed
somewhere in the country every 20 minutes. The average number
of deaths caused by violence every year was more than 30,000.
Significantly, only one in six of these was the result of
Taking up the gauntlet, in April 1999, the Colombian Red
Cross launched an extensive public information campaign on
the theme Adiós Violencia ("Farewell to Violence"),
inspired by the Norwegian Red Cross's own "Stop Violence"
campaign. During the seven months of the campaign, the National
Society invited people all over the country to express their
rejection of violence publicly by making handprints in brightly
coloured paint on banners which were then used to decorate
the walls of Red Cross branches and displayed in schools,
hospitals and other community centres throughout Colombia.
More than 147,000 handprints were thus collected. The campaign
also aspired to raise awareness among the National Society's
55,000 volunteers and hundreds of staff members, urging them
to convey the message to family, friends and colleagues.
"We are also vulnerable in our environment and therefore
risk transferring the tensions and frustration we experience
to the workplace. This is why we wanted to use Adiós Violencia
within the Colombian Red Cross. Through workshops organized
to discuss the key aspects of human relationships, we are
seeking to promote greater respect, understanding and dialogue
in the day-to-day workings of the organization," says Dr.
Vejarano, president of the Colombian Red Cross.
The Colombian Red Cross has also made reducing urban and
domestic violence the ultimate objective of all of its preventive
and emergency activities. It aims to do this primarily by
working with and through young people. "We cannot eradicate
the extremely complex, even structural, causes of social violence,"
says Jose Raul García Rémos, the Colombian Red Cross's national
youth director. "However, we can and should work with young
people to provide them with the tools they need to survive
in this environment and help them to resolve the conflicts
of everyday life in a peaceful way."
PACO, which stands for Peace, Action and Coexistence, is
a Red Cross youth programme based on seven principles of peaceful
coexistence aimed at children and young people throughout
the country and including mutual respect, communication, teamwork,
health and the environment. A series of recreational workshops
has been developed to promote, teach and put into practice
each principle. These are conducted in the schools and community
centres of disadvantaged districts all over the country by
the National Society's youngest members. PACO is eight years
old and has become one of the mainstays of the Colombian Red
Cross's humanitarian work. The programme is implemented by
some 30,000 specialized volunteers, and its principles accompany
relief workers, doctors, the Damas Grises ("Grey Ladies")
and community welfare officers wherever they go to carry out
In its efforts to foster
a culture of non-violence, the Colombian Red Crossis seeking
ways to appeal to young people.
One step beyond
In recognition of the dynamic, sensitive and adverse nature
of the environment in which they work - considered to be one
of the most violent in the world - Red Cross members are also
determined to improve the quality of their own operations.
"If we don't plan our activities using accurate, reliable
information reflecting the reality of each of the areas in
which we take action, we might inadvertently add to the many
existing tensions among the population," explains Walter Cotte,
Colombian Red Cross director of national operations and disaster
relief. The National Society has therefore made the Federation's
Better Programme Initiative (BPI) part of its staff and volunteer
The BPI provides an additional tool for analysing conflictual
situations and planning programmes so that action taken in
particularly violent contexts supports the bonds of community
identified by those responsible for the projects. Based on
a cooperation project between various humanitarian organizations
and donors called "Local Capacities for Peace", the BPI was
launched two years ago by the Federation Secretariat. It was
recently introduced in Colombia through a series of training
workshops for Colombian Red Cross staff and volunteers. "Better
Programming Initiative training aims to give added value to
our action wherever it is carried out and, in this way, capitalize
on and maximize reconciliation initiatives in places which
are affected by very high levels of social violence," adds
It is likely to take years, even decades, to heal Colombia
of the pain caused by violence and its aftermath. Daunting
though this may be, it is already encouraging to know that
there are hundreds of thousands of people in Colombia who
are ready to join forces to achieve this common goal.
Macarena Aguilar is the Federation BPI liaison officer based
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