Feature: Resilience of Colombian refugees impresses Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa

News Stories, 15 April 2004

© UNDP/O.Robles
Vargas Llosa with children of Colombian refugees and local Panamanians in the Darien region of Panama.

YAPE, Panama, April 15 (UNHCR) In his novel "The Green House" (La Casa Verde), regarded as one of Latin America's seminal works of fiction, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa depicted a murky world of intrigue and violence set in the vast Amazonian jungle. Thirty eight years after the publication of this masterpiece, Vargas Llosa was back in the sweltering bush, visiting projects of the UN refugee agency for Colombian refugees in Panama's Darién region.

From Yaviza, where the Pan-American Highway comes to an abrupt end and the so-called Darién Gap begins, Vargas Llosa and his son, Gonzalo, who is the UNHCR's Representative in Panama, travelled by canoe to Yape. They were accompanied by the Director of the Panamanian Government's Office for Refugees, the head of the Refugee Project of the Vicarage of Darién and an official from the UN Development Programme.

"It was a five-hour journey beautiful but also tough, as in this season the river is very dry. In Yape, we visited the new UNHCR-supported project to build a Health Centre. The community is delighted with this initiative, as it will save them the trouble of having to travel to Boca de Cupe or Yaviza to get basic medical treatment," recounts the writer.

In Yape, Vargas Llosa had a long private discussion with one of the refugee families, a woman who fled Colombia in tragic circumstances, and whose husband was killed. He heard similarly moving stories from other Colombian refugees in Panama as he did also from internally displaced people inside Colombia whom he met during a recent visit to Bogota. One of the things that impressed him most in all these cases was the eagerness of the Colombians to tell him their story. "They were desperate for the world to know what they had been through, to make sure that somehow their plight was recognized," he explained.

In Boca de Cupe, Vargas Llosa visited a UNHCR-supported Quick Impact Project producing honey and unrefined cane sugar. Ten Colombian families grow sugar cane there, and the writer was able to follow the process to make molasses and to taste the final product.

"The enthusiasm of those running this project is captivating. Mariluz [the Colombian woman in charge of the project] told me that if they are given the chance to start more productive activities of this type, they could, with the help of their Panamanian brothers and sisters, revitalize the economy of the whole Darién region," he said.

© UNDP/O.Robles
Workers constructing the UNHCR-funded health centre in Yape, Panama.

"My main impressions after this visit were, first of all, the amazing degree of co-existence between the Colombian and Panamanian communities. In most cases, it is simply impossible to distinguish between the two. This is the result not only of the historical and family links, but the generosity of the local Panamanian communities and the fact that, with rare exceptions, the Colombians have really made an effort to integrate.

"I was also very moved by the dramatic stories that I heard: stories of family members killed back in Colombia; families broken up and, in many cases, without any news from relatives back at home for many years; all property lost; a dangerous and troubled flight to Panama ... but what impressed me the most was the fact that, in spite of the difficult experiences they have had, the Colombians I met remain resilient and, most importantly, want to be productive. I saw an example of this in Yape, where, literally, the refugees themselves are building the health centre with their own hands." Vargas Llosa said.

By William Spindler
UNHCR Colombia

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Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies with New Wings

In a violence-ridden corner of Colombia, a group of courageous women are putting their lives at risk helping survivors of displacement and sexual violence. In a country where 5.7 million people have been uprooted by conflict, they live in one of the most dangerous cities - Buenaventura. Colombia's main port has one of the highest rates of violence and displacement, due to escalating rivalries between armed groups. To show their power or to exact revenge, the groups often violate and abuse the most vulnerable - women and children.

But in Buenaventura, the women who make up "Butterflies" are standing up and helping the survivors. They provide one-on-one support for victims of abuse and reach into different communities to educate and empower women and put pressure on the authorities to uphold women's rights.

Many of Butterflies' members have been forcibly displaced during the past 50 years of conflict, or have lost relatives and friends. Many are also survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It is this shared experience that pushes them to continue their work in spite of the risks.

On foot or by bus, Gloria Amparello , Maritza Asprilla Cruz and Mery Medina - three of the Butterflies coordinators - visit the most dangerous neighbourhoods and help women access medical and psychological care or help them report crimes. Through workshops, they teach women about their rights and how to earn a living. So far, Butterflies volunteers have helped more than 1,000 women and their families.

Butterflies has become a driving force in raising awareness about the high levels of violence against women. Despite attracting the attention of armed groups, they organize protests against abuse of women in the streets of their dilapidated city, determined to knock down walls of fear and silence.

Nansen Refugee Award: Butterflies with New Wings

Struggling with the threat of extinction

Among Colombia's many indigenous groups threatened with extinction, few are in a riskier situation than the Tule. There are only about 1,200 of them left in three locations in the neighbouring departments of Choco and Antiquoia in north-western Colombia.

One group of 500 live in Choco's Unguia municipality, a strategically important area on the border with Panama that is rich in timber, minerals and other natural resources. Unfortunately, these riches have attracted the attention of criminal and illegal armed groups over the past decade.

Many tribe members have sought shelter in Panama or elsewhere in Choco. But a determined core decided to stay, fearing that the tribe would never survive if they left their ancestral lands and gave up their traditional way of life.

UNHCR has long understood and sympathized with such concerns, and the refugee agency has helped draw up a strategy to prevent displacement, or at least ensure that the Tule never have to leave their territory permanently.

Struggling with the threat of extinction

Indigenous people in Colombia

There are about a million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages. But the internal armed conflict is taking its toll on them.

Like many Colombians, indigenous people often have no choice but to flee their lands to escape violence. Forced displacement is especially tragic for them because they have extremely strong links to their ancestral lands. Often their economic, social and cultural survival depends on keeping these links alive.

According to Colombia's national indigenous association ONIC, 18 of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing. UNHCR is working with them to support their struggle to stay on their territories or to rebuild their lives when they are forced to flee.

UNHCR also assists indigenous refugees in neighbouring countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. UNHCR is developing a regional strategy to better address the specific needs of indigenous people during exile.

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