Forced displacement in Colombia: A woman's story
BUCARAMANGA, Colombia, 8 March (UNHCR) - "When I came here, I was not what I am now," says 28-year-old Olga Lucia Rodriguez, remembering the day five years ago when she had to flee her home in San Vincente de Chucuri, a small town in the Colombian province of Santander.
In San Vincente, Olga Lucia looked after her two children and took care of cattle. All this changed when she and her family had to flee to escape the violence of Colombia's conflict and took refuge in the province's capital, Bucaramanga. The first few days were the worst.
"We were scared," she recalls, "we walked the streets for hours until a woman asked us what we needed and took us to sleep in her house for a night. That was the beginning."
Five years later, Olga is a community leader in the Doce de Octubre neighbourhood, on the outskirts of Bucaramanga, home to a large internally displaced population. She has witnessed more horrors of the armed conflict and has received threats from irregular armed groups. But, she also has acquired a great understanding of the effects of displacement on the lives of the more than two million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Colombia and of the difficulties displaced women face daily.
"Women are often alone, because they lost their family or because the family split after displacement," she explains. "But they are courageous and, no matter what, they stick to their children. What is awful is when it is their children who become victims of the violence. I feel very helpless when that happens to my friends."
It was her love for her children that prompted Olga Lucia to social action. Three months after the family's arrival in Bucaramanga, the temporary rent subsidy given by the government to newly-displaced families came to an end. The only solution for them was to build makeshift houses with a group of other IDPs and local residents living in poverty on the outskirts of the city. The land was prone to flooding from a nearby stream and mudslides from adjacent hills. With no public service, the whole area was at risk of diseases from wastewater outlets close by. But, it was all they had.
On 12 October 2001, Olga Lucia and a few other displaced people proudly founded the new neighbourhood. Soon after that, she became president of the neighbourhood association, a position she still holds.
Over the next few years, progress was slow to come to Doce de Octubre, named after the day of its inauguration. It took a natural disaster - the severe floods of February 2005 - to turn the authorities' attention to the neighbourhood.
Thousands of IDPs were affected by the floods. In Doce de Octubre, many lost their houses, some almost lost their lives. But one positive effect of the tragedy was to unite them.
"Before the floods," Olga Lucia says, "people were trying to deal on their own with the problem of violence. But with the floods the problem became the same for everyone: we were all the same."
She acted quickly to mobilise all the available help. She had already had contacts with institutions like UNHCR and the social ministry of the Church, and knew exactly where to go. Both institutions helped and a year later, Doce de Octubre has been rebuilt in a safer place, on land given by the local authorities.
Olga Lucia and her neighbours now have electric power, although many find it very hard to pay the bills. They also have clean water and bathrooms, thanks to the intervention of international organisations. Youth clubs have been opened and people feel more united. Many are taking part in the planning of a Comprehensive Plan for Displacement promoted by UNHCR in the region.
But Olga Lucia has paid the price for standing up and being a community leader. Irregular armed groups, whose threats and violence follow IDPs into the very cities where they are seeking protection, do not tolerate any leadership they consider as competition to their influence. Being a woman made things even more complicated, Olga Lucia says.
"Two years ago, I had to quit my post," she explains. "People from the armed groups approached my husband and told him I had to quit or they would kill me."
At that time, Olga Lucia's husband believed her place was at home with the kids, "away from trouble", and that she had neglected her family in favour of her community work.
"He ordered me to quit, and I felt so bad I had to go to the psychologist," Olga Lucia says. "I talked to him and asked him to value me as a leader. At some point he understood that I do the best for my family, just like him."
Eventually her husband changed his mind and Olga Lucia returned to her functions as a community leader, this time with his backing. Last year, when she received new threats, her husband stood up for her.
"When they told my husband that I would disappear if I did not quit, he replied that he supported me and that none of us would leave, nobody would make us get out of here. Now he's my main support," she says.
Olga plans to finish high school this year thanks to a grant, and perhaps pursue further studies. Despite all the hardships of forced displacement, she is glad to have been able to help others move forward and rebuild their lives.
"I found that, apart from being a wife and a mother, I could contribute to make things better for the community, as a leader. I feel so proud because this is a society that prefers men," she says, adding that her commitment is not exceptional but typical of the way many women react to displacement. In the neighbourhood association, for example, all but two of the members are women. In the end, Olga Lucia says, "it is us, women, who drive the process forward."
By Gustavo Valdivieso