News Stories, 13 January 2011
BOGOTÁ, Colombia, January 13 (UNHCR) – Young Francesca* will never forget the day that she was forced to flee from her home in a rural area of northern Colombia's Antioquia department. There was a beautiful dawn, but the rest of that February day in 2003 was filled with fear and tears.
The security situation in her native Granada municipality had been steadily deteriorating since 1995, with the arrival of illegal armed groups in the area and growing violence and forced displacement. On November 3, 2000, one armed group killed 19 people in and around Granada, including children, and in the following month much of the town was destroyed and 23 people killed in attacks.
Finally, Francesca's family were forced to flee for their lives. "We were given very little time to go," the bright 11-year-old wrote in a letter last November in support of an important new UNHCR awareness campaign. "Seeing the anguish of my parents, I cried with them without really knowing what was going on."
Since 2005, the situation has been relatively stable and the family returned after about a year to their farm to find the house in ruins and the fields overgrown. "All we had was the courage to move forward. So we decided to reopen our land and keep working to recover the life we once had," she recently told UNHCR.
But now Francesca, and other victims of the violence in Granada, are helping UNHCR to spread awareness in Colombia and other Latin American countries about the plight and life of the forcibly displaced – including more than 3 million internally displaced people in Colombia – and to promote tolerance and understanding.
UNHCR's "Put yourself in their Shoes" multi-media campaign, which coincides with celebrations marking UNHCR's 60th anniversary (December 14, 2010), was launched at an international meeting last November in Brazil on refugee protection and other issues. To support the year-long campaign, people literally slip into a pair of shoes. Several celebrities have already done so.
Francesca got into the spirit of things by handing a pair of her shoes to one of UNHCR's top officials, Völker Turk, when he visited Granada in November. It was an especially meaningful gesture for her because they were the first pair of shoes that she received after fleeing her home all those years ago.
"I made everyone smile with my shoes, because of the funny sound they made," Francesca told UNHCR, adding that "in this way I could, to a certain extent, disperse the pain caused when we left our home."
Today, she occasionally helps the UNHCR office in Medellin, the largest city in Antioquia, meeting visitors to her community like Turk and telling them about the challenges that the people of Granada have faced and about the conditions necessary for people to be able to return home.
"Francesca is a symbol representing all the victims of the conflict in Granada municipality," said Teemar Kidane, who works on protection issues for the UNHCR sub-office in Medellín.
There are currently almost 750,000 internally displaced people in Antioquia department. UNHCR provides technical support to the local authorities and monitors the welfare of displaced people. The refugee agency is also involved in shelter projects for indigenous people in the department who have been displaced.
* Name changed for protection reasons
By Catalina Román in Bogotá, Colombia
For more information on the Shoes campaign, go to: http://ensuszapatos.org