Colombians light up to show solidarity for displaced people

News Stories, 12 December 2008

© UNHCR/S.Abondano
Lifted by Light: Lanterns made by displaced Colombians were lit to show solidarity with those forced to flee their homes.

BOGOTA, Colombia, December 12 (UNHCR) Thousands of Colombians braved a chilly evening this week to create a river of light in a central Bogota square in memory of the country's hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and other victims of years of conflict.

The lantern lighting on Wednesday marked the culmination of the UNHCR-led Corre por la Vida (Running for Life) campaign, which was launched four months ago on the internet to raise understanding about the displaced and foster solidarity and support for them. Some 10,000 people visited the special website www.correporlavida.com which encouraged volunteer work and the involvement of the private sector in providing durable solutions.

An average of 25,000 people are forced to flee their homes every month in Colombia as a result of armed conflict, threats, intimidations, killings and generalized violence. There are currently up to 3 million internally displaced people (IDPs) throughout the country.

Several of the displaced took part in the ceremony on Tuesday, which also happened to be the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They included Claudia, a displaced woman in her forties who lit one of the 5,000 paper lanterns to put a symbolic end to Colombia's "horrible night"

She was among a group of 150 IDP women now living in a suburb of Bogota who made the lanterns, which were distributed among the milling crowds in the square. "It is the first time that I have felt that an event like this is meant for me," she said at a ceremony attended by Bogota's Mayor Samuel Moreno and other dignitaries, including visually impaired athlete, Elkin Serna.

Serna, who won a silver medal in the marathon event at the Beijing Paralympics earlier this year, led a three-kilometre march to the city centre to show solidarity with the displaced. Staff from UNHCR and 11 other organizations backing the Corre por la Vida campaign joined in the march.

The campaign had special meaning for Serna, who was forced to flee the family farm when he was only 11 years old after an irregular armed groups issued death threats against his father, mother and uncle. A year later he was forced on the run again and soon afterwards his sight began deteriorating as a result of a virus, which might have been cured with proper health care.

"As a displaced person with a disability, I have a lot going against me," he said, while adding that he was "proof that difficulties can be overcome and I am here to help other people do it."

Colombian rock musician Juanes, another supporter of the campaign, sent a message of solidarity with displaced people "What we cannot do is to do nothing," he said in a video message broadcast during the ceremony.

Meanwhile, the head of UNHCR's operations in Colombia deemed Corre por la Vida a success. "The campaign has had a positive impact in the lives of displaced people. We know of displaced people who are running small businesses and are now employing other displaced people as a result of the campaign," said Jean-Noël Wetterwald.

By Gustavo Valdivieso in Bogota, Colombia