Sunday, January 4, 2009

Notes from my trip to Colombia

The sense of a town under siege is shown by this photo taken on a Monday afternoon. Colombia was a very tense place but the people were very friendly.

Photo: Guy Arceneaux, taken in Soacha, Colombia, June 16, 2008

Bogota, Colombia: Monday, June 16th, 2008

The Bogota, Colombia CRS office was first established in 1959 and demonstrated continuous service until 1990 when the office was closed. In 1992 the office was reopened and is now involved in extensive human rights awareness efforts and partnering with groups involved in the considerable problem of displacement of people throughout Colombia.

Partner organizations within Colombia are the SNPS, Caritas and Colombian Dioceses as well as other ecclesiastical agencies. Working with this coalition CRS has developed a common set of programs and policies.

The office is in the midst of a 3-year program focusing on this issue with an annual operating budget of approximately $1 million dollars. The primary efforts are, peace-building, human rights, building solidarity and advocacy in the United States.

Soacha: A common displaced background, but life at two extremes

After a briefing at the CRS Bogota offices, Jim Stipe, CRS photographer, Matthew Bristow and myself accompanied Maria Elisa Caresani to Soacha, an area that has seen explosive growth due to the influx of desplazados (displaced persons).

Our first visit was to a housing complex in Soacha inhabited primarily by families of desplazados. We met with Aminta Baquiro and her children. They were very welcomingvideotaping an interview with Aminta and her son Diego Armando Escobar.

Their home was very comfortable with tiled floors and nice furniture, the neighborhood felt secure and quiet. This family had made the adjustment very well, but it was evident they harbored insecurities about their standard of living. Diego, the son was especially intent on making things better by becoming a policeman, securing a salaried position of power.

We were taken to visit a woman, Luz Miriam Anzola, who lived in Soachea with her two daughters aged 15 and 6. We took a cab to their habitat, which was in a very desolate part of Soacha. The woman's living quarters were at the end of an alley paved by loose rubble including broken tiles, brick fragments, stones and concrete chunks.

It was typical of the type of dwellings desplezados in Soacha build, using land on which they are squatting. Entire neighborhoods have sprung up, some become established and housing develops over time.

The cab driver waited for us at the entrance to the alley as we walked towards a patchwork home of plywood, corrugated metal and scraps of plastic sheeting situated
next to a marshy field filled with marsh grasses and bushy growth. The shack was situated across the alley from a soap making operation that was belching an acrid smoke that drifted into the open door as we were greeted.

Truth be told, we were not expected, this woman was obviously not feeling well, coughing intermittently while making quite a fuss about clearing a space for us to sit.

We wanted to hear her story and I spent a good twenty minutes interviewing her through
our interpreter, Matthew Bristow, in Spanish. We heard a very sad tale of displacement and loss and an existence that at this point in time seems uncertain to her.

During the interview she revealed how her asthma is aggravated by the smoke that drifts into their home. Even with the door closed the smoke comes through the cracks between the ceiling beams and the gaps in the metal siding. That day was dry, clear and windy, but I wondered how different things might be during the rainy season when the waters from the nearby marsh rose, easily turning their earthen floor to a mud.

She described nights when young men prowled the alley and sometimes banged at their door, frightening them all, keeping them from sleep, in fear of their safety. She does not work, afraid to leave her young daughters alone, consequently, she can't afford the tuition for her daughters' education.

Despite the grime that covered almost everything inside the house, the cheerful girls were
clean, well dressed and certainly loved by this single mother of two.

The Director of Pastoral Social Caritas, Fr. Ricardo Martinez Gonzalez, told me that they were trying to place her and her daughters in a more suitable shelter. The temporary shelter was built by acquaintances of the woman when she first arrived in Soache.

It was time to leave Soacha for the airport, but we would return in a few days time. Jim Stipe, Rigoberto Patino, our CRS host, and Matthew Bristow, intrepid translator were off to a very different environment—hot and steamy. We were headed to Quibdo in Choco on the Atrato River in western Colombia, the jungle!

© Copyright 2009 Guy Arceneaux All rights reserved

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