Colombian youngsters hope education will give them a life without bullets
TIBU, Colombia, October 3 (UNHCR) - Claudia* was an innocent 10-year-old when a paramilitary group raided her hometown of La Gabarra in north-east Colombia and killed 70 people.
"The night of the massacre [on May 29, 1999] they turned down the lights first, then we began to hear gunfire," Claudia recalls. "I did not dare open the door until eight the next morning. Then I saw the bodies of many of my neighbours lying on the street," adds Claudia.
The young girl and most of her family fled the oil town in the volatile Catatumbo region bordering Venezuela and sought refuge in the municipality of Tibu, an area where thick jungles hide vast fields of cocaine-producing coca plants. Two elder sisters stayed behind and have not been seen since.
But Claudia counts herself lucky - after three years working in the coca fields and witnessing two more massacres, she was able to resume her education and is now one of 80 students at the Hogar Juvenal Campesino (Young Campesino's Place), a boarding school in Tibu run by the Catholic Church's Pastoral Social community programme. "I am alive by miracle," the 18-year-old says.
The students come from all over the Catatumbo region; many of them are displaced and almost everyone has an awful story to tell. Eduardo,* for instance, was 14 when his older brother was killed by paramilitaries two years ago and the family had to flee from northern Catatumbo to Tibu.
"We had cattle and a 40-hectare farm but we had to sell the whole lot for nothing," says Eduardo, who lost his childhood home and his dream of working on the family farm. "I like it here because I am studying," he said, while looking to the future. "I would like to become a nurse or a policeman," revealed Eduardo.
"Our role is to give these young people the option of finishing their secondary education," says Victor Hugo Peña, who works for Pastoral Social. "Right now, one in every five kids in Catatumbo is not attending school," he adds.
Students at the Hogar Juvenal Campesino learn not just about mathematics, literature and other academic subjects, but also about how to grow food crops and raise cattle - essentially, how to live off the land.
The school is giving displaced young people like Claudia and fellow student, Eduardo, the chance to salvage something from the wreckage of their lives and learn skills that will give them the direction and hope that is missing among most of those unable to attend school.
They have to pay a modest fee, but the students and their families see it as an investment in the future. "It's only five [US] dollars, but for us it's a lot of money. Anything is a lot when you don't have enough to buy food," says Claudia, whose mother washes clothes in Tibu to raise the money.
UNHCR is running a job-creation scheme to help the students' families earn an income. The agency is also supplying them with crops and cattle in a bid to improve their nutrition.
The project has financed the improvement of sanitary facilities at the boarding school, including the provision of clean water. It includes counselling for students and training for teachers on how to deal with displaced youth, many of whom have suffered severe psychological trauma.
"The Catatumbo region is a very violent part of Colombia and many children see a lot of death and brutality while growing up," says Renée Cuijpers, the UNHCR coordinator in the area, adding that education is one of the refugee agency's priorities in Colombia - and elsewhere in the world. "These children don't get many opportunities and we want to help them get better future opportunities."
But violence is still never far away. Irregular armed groups regularly attempt to forcibly recruit the Hogar Juvenal Campesino students, while at home domestic violence and child abuse are problems.
In the midst of so much violence, the Tibu school is trying to provide an oasis of hope for a generation of youngsters. Claudia and Eduardo know it won't be easy, but they aspire to a brighter future - one of a life without bullets.
UNHCR believes that all refugee children should be given access to education. Last week at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) summit in New York, the agency formally launched a campaign to raise US$220 million to ensure that by 2010 all refugee children get an education.
* Names have been changed for protection reasons.
By Gustavo Valdivieso and Ligimat Pérez in Tibu, Colombia