After discovering the horrific events occuring in the South American nation,
a group of Dawson Students traveled to aid the citizens, as one documented their experience.
by Audrey Nolin
In affluent societies like ours, drug use is often seen as something that is recreational. College students do not necessarily think or care about how or under what circumstances certain “recreational drugs” may have arrived at their parties while giving a lot of thought to whether the food they are eating is local, organic or fair trade. The fact is, there are many people in poorer areas of the world who are innocent victims of the drug trade. One such group are the desplazados, the term used to designate the internally displaced people of Colombia. I had the opportunity to spend a few days with a community of desplazados and was able to observe their struggle to survive.
Colombia has been torn by civil war for about forty years. The political aspects of the conflict are complicated but it is very clear that the production and sale of illegal drugs is central to the conflict. In the last eight years, over four million intenal displaced persons have left their rural homes and land to live in shantytowns. Most of these displaced persons were forced to leave their homes as a result of fighting among the army, right- wing paramilitaries, left-wing guerrillas and drug-traffickers. All of these participants in the conflict have actually targeted these civilians for strategic purposes. Communities are basically forced out of areas that the different groups may want to control. According to Amnesty
International, the majority of displaced people are Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendents and campesinos, which means “peasant”. Their land has allowed paramilitaries to accumulate wealth and they say, help win the war against the drug lords. Amnesty International estimates that around five million hectares of land has been stolen.
Colombia is a major supplier of cocaine to the United States. Colombia supplies over 95 per cent of the cocaine consumed in the United States. Colombia’s drug lords gained importance since cocaine trafficking brings a lot of money to the country. Therefore, the Colombian economy created a kind of “dependence” on drug trafficking. This led to a lack of confidence towards the State and the official army were not able to resolve the conflict. This led to delinquency and hatred. In 1994, the United States’ government helped fight against the guerrillas by giving two billion dollars to the Colombian government. After many failed attempts to reduce cocaine production, a strong chemical herbicide (SPIKE 20) was sprayed all over Colombian lands causing deforestation, poisoning ground water and permanently ruined lands used for agriculture. Despite the massive sprayings of the lands, cocaine production is expanding into the jungle till this day. Drug production and exportation is extremely lucrative for the rebel groups but also for other military groups.
Each group blames the others for the negative impact of the drug trade on Colombian society but there is one clear fact and that is a civil war and the drug trade have caused a lot of grief amongst the most vulnerable members of Colombian society. Drug lords take people’s property and produce cocaine on these lands neglecting the moral consequences on the refugees. The displaced people have no regular income, have difficulty getting access to a place to live, have no access to health services or education. They also have a lack of hygiene which can lead to life threatening diseases. This also has a big impact on the displaced children; they sacrifice their education to work and provide for the family.
Last June, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the impact of this violence and upheaval has had on the Colombian population. Two Dawson professors from the Language Department, Maria Fernanda Benavides and Nelly Muresan, helped organize a trip to Colombia which included humanitarian activities in the Santa Marta region.
The trip was also coordinated by Fondation Solidarité Colombie Québec (Solicolque), a non-governmental and non-profit organization. Maria Fernanda Benavides is a member of the Board of Directors of Solicolque in addition to being Vice- chairwoman.
Founded in 1997, Solicolque has set up humanitarian activities in the relatively secure region of Santa Marta. This organisation supports community initiatives that are located in the Magdalena Department, an urban area in northern Colombia. The communities are made up of displaced persons, the desplazados, who have been forced to leave their homes to escape violence resulting from the civil war and the drug war.
Most of the projects take place in “misery belts” such as La Paz, Cristo Rey, Circacia and Torre Quince which are all in Commune 8 in Santa Marta. The desplazados arrive in Commune 8 with little or no possessions. They build shelters using whatever materials are available. I personally witnessed small makeshift shelters made of wood, metal sheets, cardboard, plastic sheets, sticks and rocks.
Our group of about 15 Dawson students worked to help support a very small portion of the help and contribution that Solicolque provides year around.
For example, Solicolque was responsible for building a school attended by children from the area. We helped paint the school, and actually gave English lessons to the kids. Obviously, we did not teach them English in a couple of days but the children thoroughly enjoyed the experience. They were getting attention and respect; something that they had not had enough of. Prior to the trip, a campaign we held at Dawson allowed us to collect money to purchase CROCS sandals, arts and crafts and sports gear for the kids. You could sense that these children actually liked coming to the school. Their “school bus” was actually a tractor that they would jump onto as it made its way to the school. Many of the kids had a 45 minute “commute”. I witnessed about 50 kids on the tractor at the same time smiling and laughing. They were wearing long filthy pants, old dirty long-sleeved shirts and worn-out broken shoes in humid 30 degrees weather. They were thrilled by the opportunity to actually go to school. They were singing and laughing. This really contrasted with the long faces many of us wear when we attend our modern and free CEGEP.
We also organized a drive to collect clothes from Dawson students, which was a success. The clothes were distributed to the families but we could sense how desperate these people were. We had the opportunity to meet dozens of families living alongside a train track called La Ligna and visited their homes. Men, women and children sleep in very close quarters on the ground. There is no electricity nor running water in their homes. They did not patiently await an orderly distribution of the clothes. Several parents pushed to the front of the group and awkwardly yanked some of the clothes from our hands. They seemed afraid to walk away empty handed. The children had been previously offered a pair of CROCS and an item of clothing. Contrary to the adults, the kids were more respectful and patient. They saw the CROCS and clothes as gifts part of a celebration. You could feel the sense of stress in the parents and adults that had not yet fully reached the children. Lindsay Ann Jacobs, one of the Dawson students on the trip, had this recollection of this scene “to see the conditions that these people lived in was heartbreaking yet they are so thankful for what little they have and when we saw their faces as we handed them supplies and gifts, which to us seemed like nothing, meant the absolute world to them.”
Our group certainly helped the deplazados during the short time we were there and we did help Solicolque in its mission. However, internal displaced people face tremendous challenges and statistics are not encouraging. These displaced families live in inadequate housing, do not get access to public health care and can not get educated or trained, which could lead to eventual work and the ability to afford everyday necessities.
The desplazados that we worked with in Commune 8 have probably fared a little better than the displaced people of other areas of Colombia. However, there is no doubt that they have little hope for a better future as long as guerrillas, the army, militiamen and businesses are fighting over land and drugs. Notwithstanding this, they do their best to live with some dignity and perhaps, even get an education. Here in a rich Western democracy, students take higher education for granted and we have a lot of time on our hands. Many privileged people in our society, including students, without realizing it, help fuel the international drug trade and it seems that this has an affect on the lives of many people whose stories never get told.