After fleeing rural massacre, former tobacco farmer sells coffee in the city

News Stories, 21 December 2009

© UNHCR/Zalmaï
Grimaldo makes a living selling coffee on the streets of El Pozon, a shanty town on the outskirts of Cartagena where tens of thousands of displaced people live alongside poverty-stricken locals. Grimaldo, who fled his home after a massacre, saves everything he makes to support his family. Meanwhile, he needs an operation for gallstones.

CARTAGENA, Colombia, December 21 (UNHCR) Grimaldo Hernandez looks wistfully at a photograph of the football team he used to play for in a northern Colombia village. "Three of them are dead, eight are displaced," he said, pointing at the 18 young men in the snapshot.

The image brings back bitter-sweet memories of a rural life in El Salado, where 41-year-old Grimaldo grew tobacco like most of his neighbours, brought up a young family and played football at the weekend with his pals.

The course of his life changed forever over a few days in February 2000, when paramilitaries attacked the village in Bolivar department, leaving at least 60 people dead, including this three teammates. Scores of inhabitants, Grimaldo and his family among them, fled to urban areas to escape the violence.

A growing number of the people that UNHCR helps around the world, both refugees and internally displaced people like Grimaldo, live in urban areas, where they face many new challenges and must often fend for themselves.

Grimaldo found refuge in El Pozon, a rough, tough shantytown on the outskirts of Cartagena, Bolivar's sprawling capital on the Caribbean. The authorities have registered some 60,000 internally displaced people (IDP) in Cartagena, most of them living in impoverished suburbs like El Pozon.

When Grimaldo, his wife and two children (a third was born in El Pozon) arrived nine years ago, there was no running water, no electricity, no street lights and no sewage system. The future looked bleak, but the former farmer was determined to find employment.

"I tried to do several things. I worked in an ironmonger's shop. I worked on a farm not far from the city," he recalled. But he was spooked when one of the farmer owners took a shot at a worker, mistaking him for a robber. "When I saw that, I thought to myself: 'I didn't escape from a massacre to be killed here by mistake.' And I left," Grimaldo explained.

He ended up selling small, steaming hot cups of tinto, Colombian slang for coffee, on the rutted streets of El Pozon, where there is a potential market of tens of thousands of people.

But while he was starting to bring in a regular income, things at home were difficult. "For the first two years after the displacement, my son Javier who was nine at that time was angry and violent a great deal of the time. He had problems at school, he grabbed other kids by the neck," Grimaldo noted.

Javier seems to be still suffering from the trauma of the attack in El Salado. "A couple of months ago he was coming home and saw a couple of policemen in front of our door. He couldn't speak for a couple of minutes. He told us that he thought 'I'm dead,'" the boy's father added.

His 16-year-old daughter, Dedris, faced a different problem. Her classmates laughed at her because her father sold tinto. "I told her that no honest job was bad, but I know it was a problem for her," Grimaldo said.

While the family's introduction to their involuntary life in the city was harsh, things have improved a lot in El Pozon. Today, they have clean, running water at home, electricity and lighting. This is provided by the local government at subsidized. prices. Grimaldo earns about US$200 a month from his tinto sales, while his wife, Yenis, brings in an extra US$30 a month by selling home-made ice lollies.

The children are also generally doing well. Javier wants to help his father, while Dedris dreams, perhaps unrealistically, of studying law. She and her younger sister, Greidis, are taking free music classes in the flute and other instruments under a government programme.

© UNHCR/Zalmaï
Yenis fled her village of El Salado in northern Colombia after paramilitiaries killed dozens of people there. But her suffering did not end there. One of her brothers escaped the massacre and went to live in another town, where he was murdered a year later.

But, in real terms, Grimaldo's life has advanced little over the past decade, while his health has deteriorated he needs an operation for gallstones. Inevitably, he has thought over the years about his past, seemingly idyllic, life, when he lived surrounded by a real forest rather than in a concrete jungle.

Earlier this year, he and his wife returned to El Salado for the first time since the massacre. They attended a reunion of past and current residents organized by the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation and aimed at healing the wounds of the past.

"We cried a lot seeing our old friends again. We were happy but we cried," Grimaldo said, adding that on the way back, everyone was worried that someone might shoot at them from the hills. "Our friends in the town tell us that we are better off than them," he revealed.

By Gustavo Valdivieso in Cartagena, Colombia




UNHCR country pages

Urban Refugees

More than half the refugees UNHCR serves now live in urban areas

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

After more than forty years of internal armed conflict, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Well over two million people have been forced to flee their homes; many of them have left remote rural areas to take refuge in the relative safety of the cities.

Displaced families often end up living in slum areas on the outskirts of the big cities, where they lack even the most basic services. Just outside Bogota, tens of thousands of displaced people live in the shantytowns of Altos de Cazuca and Altos de Florida, with little access to health, education or decent housing. Security is a problem too, with irregular armed groups and gangs controlling the shantytowns, often targeting young people.

UNHCR is working with the authorities in ten locations across Colombia to ensure that the rights of internally displaced people are fully respected – including the rights to basic services, health and education, as well as security.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

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.

Indigenous people in Colombia

Panama's Hidden Refugees

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Panama's Hidden Refugees

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