Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

After fleeing rural massacre, former tobacco farmer sells coffee in the city


After fleeing rural massacre, former tobacco farmer sells coffee in the city

Hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced Colombians face a daily struggle to survive in towns and cities, like the sprawling Caribbean port of Cartagena
21 December 2009
Grimaldo Hernandez, 41, and his wife and two children fled into the hills surrounding their home town, El Salado, after dozens of people were killed there in February 2000 by paramilitaries. A former butcher and tobacco farmer, Grimaldo now sells coffee on the streets of a shantytown on the outskirts of Cartagena. In a good month he can make US$150, which is enough to cover his bills.

CARTAGENA, Colombia, December 21 (UNHCR) - Grimaldo Hernandez looks wistfully at a photograph of the football team he used to play for in a northern Colombia village. "Three of them are dead, eight are displaced," he said, pointing at the 18 young men in the snapshot.

The image brings back bitter-sweet memories of a rural life in El Salado, where 41-year-old Grimaldo grew tobacco like most of his neighbours, brought up a young family and played football at the weekend with his pals.

The course of his life changed forever over a few days in February 2000, when paramilitaries attacked the village in Bolivar department, leaving at least 60 people dead, including this three teammates. Scores of inhabitants, Grimaldo and his family among them, fled to urban areas to escape the violence.

A growing number of the people that UNHCR helps around the world, both refugees and internally displaced people like Grimaldo, live in urban areas, where they face many new challenges and must often fend for themselves.

Grimaldo found refuge in El Pozon, a rough, tough shantytown on the outskirts of Cartagena, Bolivar's sprawling capital on the Caribbean. The authorities have registered some 60,000 internally displaced people (IDP) in Cartagena, most of them living in impoverished suburbs like El Pozon.

When Grimaldo, his wife and two children (a third was born in El Pozon) arrived nine years ago, there was no running water, no electricity, no street lights and no sewage system. The future looked bleak, but the former farmer was determined to find employment.

"I tried to do several things. I worked in an ironmonger's shop. I worked on a farm not far from the city," he recalled. But he was spooked when one of the farmer owners took a shot at a worker, mistaking him for a robber. "When I saw that, I thought to myself: 'I didn't escape from a massacre to be killed here by mistake.' And I left," Grimaldo explained.

He ended up selling small, steaming hot cups of tinto, Colombian slang for coffee, on the rutted streets of El Pozon, where there is a potential market of tens of thousands of people.

But while he was starting to bring in a regular income, things at home were difficult. "For the first two years after the displacement, my son Javier - who was nine at that time - was angry and violent a great deal of the time. He had problems at school, he grabbed other kids by the neck," Grimaldo noted.

Javier seems to be still suffering from the trauma of the attack in El Salado. "A couple of months ago he was coming home and saw a couple of policemen in front of our door. He couldn't speak for a couple of minutes. He told us that he thought 'I'm dead,'" the boy's father added.

His 16-year-old daughter, Dedris, faced a different problem. Her classmates laughed at her because her father sold tinto. "I told her that no honest job was bad, but I know it was a problem for her," Grimaldo said.

While the family's introduction to their involuntary life in the city was harsh, things have improved a lot in El Pozon. Today, they have clean, running water at home, electricity and lighting. This is provided by the local government at subsidized. prices. Grimaldo earns about US$200 a month from his tinto sales, while his wife, Yenis, brings in an extra US$30 a month by selling home-made ice lollies.

The children are also generally doing well. Javier wants to help his father, while Dedris dreams, perhaps unrealistically, of studying law. She and her younger sister, Greidis, are taking free music classes in the flute and other instruments under a government programme.

Yenis’s suffering did not end after she fled the massacre in her home town of El Salado nine years ago. A year after the killings, one of her brothers, who had also escaped and was living and working in another town, was killed. Apparently, a friend of one of the paramilitaries started to work at the same place and and discovered that her brother had been there.

But, in real terms, Grimaldo's life has advanced little over the past decade, while his health has deteriorated - he needs an operation for gallstones. Inevitably, he has thought over the years about his past, seemingly idyllic, life, when he lived surrounded by a real forest rather than in a concrete jungle.

Earlier this year, he and his wife returned to El Salado for the first time since the massacre. They attended a reunion of past and current residents organized by the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation and aimed at healing the wounds of the past.

"We cried a lot seeing our old friends again. We were happy but we cried," Grimaldo said, adding that on the way back, everyone was worried that someone might shoot at them from the hills. "Our friends in the town tell us that we are better off than them," he revealed.

By Gustavo Valdivieso in Cartagena, Colombia