Voluntary service: to mark christian aid week neil hudson caught up with a leeds volunteer who went to live in the jungle in one of the world’s longest running civil conflicts.
When Poppy Winks agreed to travel to Columbia as a volunteer with Christian Aid, she didn’t know what to expect.
The region she went to - Choco - has been the subject of civil unrest for decades. Mostly, that centred upon the displacement of native populations by armed paramilitaries, many of whom it is claimed are in the pay of large organisations.
“We heard lots of stories, some were worse than others but essentially this conflict has been going on for a long time.
“Farmers who have lived there for generations were forced from their land by armed groups who wanted to grow things like bananas for export. They justified moving villagers on by claiming they were guerillas.
“We heard one particularly harrowing story about a group of villagers who were forced off their land and then had to go to live in a town and were given very basic aid which was not enough to live on. The people in the town were also prevented from helping them and it got to the stage where they were starving and so they decided they had to go back home.
“When they decided to try to return to their home, they were stopped by the paramilitaries, who took the youngest of then, aged just 21, hostage.
“The villagers were faced with an agonising decision: to leave the person they had taken or stay and put all their lives at risk. In the end, they had to go and they never saw the boy again.”
The conflict in Columbia is well documented but after 50 years may now be showing signs of being resolved, with the prospect of a peace accord on the horizon.
Poppy went on: “There are also humanitarian zones which have been set up to protect the villagers. The rules of the zone state no-one can enter if they are armed and because there has been a very high prosecution rate for people who flout its conditions, it is working well.
“We travelled to a village called Catarica in the Choco region to spend time with the Nueva Vida (New Life) community. It was a bit difficult to begin with because none of the villagers spoke any English and we spoke no Spanish and so a lot of the time we communicated in very basic ways, with hand and face expressions.
“One of the things I found amazing was that they had things like the internet out there. It was run of a generator and everything went off at 8pm but they still had it.
“When we were there we helped with things they did, including farming and so on.
“I think it was important in terms of showing them we were aware of their plight.
“I now know what standing in solidarity means, I learnt to love the people I met. I felt their pain, and saw their tears. But what changed me, was seeing them incredibly happy, and knowing that Christian Aid and, its supporters and even me, had played a part in that. They have been through a lot but they can still party and they showed us that.”
According to sources, more than 5m Columbians have been displaced by paramilitary organisations - a figure second only to that in Syria.
A wall made from clay hands stands as a memorial to all the people killed when the community was forced off their land at gunpoint. There are over two hundred pairs of hands, one pair for each person killed.
With the help of Christian Aid and its partner the Inter-church Commission for Justice and Peace (CIJP), the community has secured their land rights and established a safe ‘humanitarian zone’ in which they can now live peacefully.
CIJP also provides psychological support to those affected by the armed conflict, legal support to allow victims to get justice and workshops to educate people about their rights.
The Colombian conflict began in 1964 as a conflict between the Colombian government, paramilitary groups, crime syndicates and left-wing guerrillas.
The conflict claims more than 1,000 lives a year. This month, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), will be 50 years old.
Talks between different groups are taking place in Havana, Cuba in a bid to resolve the conflict and to establish new laws governing the use of agricultural land, disarmament and the growing of illicit drugs.
The FARC and other guerrilla movements claim to be fighting for the rights of the poor in Colombia to protect them from government violence and to provide social justice through communism. The Colombian government claims to be fighting for order and stability and seeking to protect the rights and interests of its citizens.
The paramilitary groups claim to be reacting to perceived threats by guerrilla movements. Both guerrilla and paramilitary groups have been accused of engaging in drug trafficking and terrorism. All of the parties engaged in the conflict have been criticized for numerous human rights violations.
According to a study by Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, 220,000 people have died in the conflict between 1958 and 2013, most of them civilians.
The 50 year conflict in Colombia has resulted in 5.7m people being forced from their homes, the second highest number of internally displaced people in any country, after Syria.
Poppy added: “We have pockets of depravation in this county but nothing like this. I think it is important that people in this country be aware of the plight of others abroad and do what they can.”
A spokesman from Christian Aid said: “Christian Aid Week (May 11–17) communities across Yorkshire will be showing their solidarity, when volunteers from local churches arrive at their doorstep to ask them to support families from war-ravaged countries to rebuild their lives and live a life free from fear.
“To people living in fear we can send this message: you are not alone. We are with you, helping you to rebuild your lives, and working for peace.
“Christian Aid works in some of the world’s poorest communities in around 50 countries at any one time. We act where there is great need, regardless of religion, helping people to live a full life, free from poverty. We provide urgent, practical and effective assistance in tackling the root causes of poverty as well as its effects.”
“Christian Aid’s core belief is that the world can and must be changed so that poverty is ended: this is what we stand for. Everything we do is about ending poverty and injustice: swiftly, effectively, sustainably.
To donate to Christian Aid Week, give online at www.caweek.org call 08080 006 006. To find out more log onto their website.