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Indigenous youth lose the will to live amid conflict in Colombia

Indigenous youth lose the will to live amid conflict in Colombia

Caught in a cycle of violence and displacement, they feel frustrated, depressed and often suicidal. UNHCR is trying to help them regain their will to live through a project that offers counselling and activities to strengthen indigenous identity and traditional values.
2 July 2004
These children have little reason to smile as they face the threat of displacement in Unión Chogorodo along the Domingodo river, a tributary of Colombia's Atrato river.

APARTADÓ, Colombia, July 2 (UNHCR) - "The great beast is coming to devour our children" is how the elders of the Embera and Wounaan peoples describe it. In just over one year, 17 young people from indigenous communities in north-western Colombia, some as young as 12, have committed or attempted suicide.

"This is not normal. Suicide is never acceptable in indigenous culture," explains Gerard Fayoux who, as Head of UNHCR's Field Office Apartadó, has worked for nearly four years in the region. "This is a sign of great distress in the communities."

The "great beast" that the elders refer to is none other than encroaching western civilization, brought by outsiders who during the last 500 years have been steadily usurping the ancestral lands of the indigenous peoples of Colombia, forcing them deeper and deeper into the forest to escape death and destruction.

In recent months, thousands of indigenous people have been displaced by massacres or fighting between irregular armed groups and the army in different parts of the country. At the same time, indigenous leaders have been threatened, killed or disappeared. Entire communities are kept under siege by the parties to the conflict who, in order to prevent their enemies from getting food, fuel and medicine, deprive the indigenous communities of these goods. According to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), a UNHCR partner, virtually all of the country's more than 80 indigenous groups are now threatened by the conflict.

The impact of this situation on indigenous culture has been devastating. Native languages and cultures are under threat as a consequence of the breakdown of traditional social patterns and political structures. The pressure on the displaced indigenous communities or those at risk increases social tension and adversely affects indigenous identity and self-esteem, especially among the youth, who experience frustration and lack of hope in the future.

According to local indigenous leaders, young people are "losing the will to live" because of the impact of the Colombian conflict on their communities. "There are too many restless spirits in this land. They are the spirits of those killed in the fighting or murdered by the armed groups," they explain. Apart from the risk of depression and suicide, indigenous elders are also concerned that this situation makes indigenous youth vulnerable to recruitment into guerrilla or paramilitary groups, thus bringing the war right into the heart of their communities.

Responding to a request for help from the Embera and Wounaan indigenous communities of the lower Atrato region, UNHCR is starting a project to provide culturally-appropriate psycho-social support and advice to young people and their families, as well as cultural activities to strengthen indigenous identity and traditional values in nine communities belonging to the Embera, Wounaan, Katio and Chami ethnic groups.

The project, implemented by the local indigenous organization, CAMIZBA, will rely on indigenous spiritual leaders known as "jaibanas" who will visit indigenous communities to assess the causes of the high rate of suicides among young people, provide psycho-social counselling in their own languages to the families and communities affected and work to strengthen traditional values. In addition, these communities will benefit from UNHCR's nation-wide projects to provide documentation to communities affected by the conflict and to train teachers to respond to the needs of displaced children.

As in the rest of Latin America, the indigenous people of Colombia have been fighting against extinction for five centuries, relying on the strength of their culture. It is hoped that by reinforcing their community organisations and their cultural identity, UNHCR can help indigenous youth regain the will to live.