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