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Echoes of a war


Colombia is a country of contradictions. It is rich in natural resources. With over 44 million inhabitants from indigenous, Spanish and African origins, it also has a dynamic and diverse culture. But for the past two decades, Colombia has been ravaged by a violent internal conflict, involving guerrilla insurgencies, drug cartels and gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law. The long-lasting conflict is severely affecting the everyday life of a great number of people, especially civilians living in rural areas.

Military actions, threats and temporary blockades of villages or entire regions by the armed groups disrupt the functioning of municipal and regional administrations. As a result, the number of displaced persons (IDPs) has increased.

In order to respond to the humanitarian needs, the ICRC, present in the country since 1980, has developed a major operation. It is striving to secure greater respect for international humanitarian law by all armed groups and authorities in particular regarding the protection of non-combatants. It also visits detainees, runs medical programmes in affected areas and it is providing emergency relief to IDPs and other victims of the conflict. The Colombian Red Cross takes an active part in several ICRC activities carried out in this country, namely in assistance projects and in operational dissemination programmes to the armed forces and the police.

In the first eight months of this year, these programmes assisted over 80,000 IDPs and residents in conflict-affected areas. Among the assistance were emergency food parcels with rice, beans, vegetable oil, etc., hygiene kits, cooking utensils and plates, and bedding material.

Valuable help with medium-term infrastructure schemes was provided by Quick Impact Projects, including constructing schools and youth and community centres, as well as helping to build water facilities and health posts.

ICRC mobile health units went in with local medical teams, ensuring the population had greater access to medical care. Three National Societies involved — Canada, Norway and Sweden — focused on medical assistance for civilians isolated by the conflict. Their work is continuing across a broad front, ranging from surgical operations and dentistry to vaccination and prevention campaigns, and improving water and sanitation.

But to achieve all this requires enormous effort, not least in constantly dealing with security difficulties, logistics, and ensuring effective coordination. These recent photos by Carlos Rios give an idea of what humanitarian work is like in the unpredictable world of Colombia.

Jean-François Berger

Where the jeep fails to go, the horse takes over. A health unit of the Colombian Red Cross in the jungle.

Main street, San Francisco, Antioquia province.

A man displaced by the conflict receives ICRC assistance in the capital, Bogota.

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