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Colombia's suffering
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 bus terminal.

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."

Chilling statistics

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 armed conflict.

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.


Starting young

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 their work.

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 training strategy.

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 Cotte.

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
Macarena Aguilar is the Federation BPI liaison officer based in Madrid.

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