Colombia: A traumatised nation

Play to commemorate the Bojaya attack
Play to commemorate the Bojayá attack  (© Eric Beauchemin)

Fighting has been going on for four decades in the South American nation of Colombia. Bombings, fighting and kidnappings are regular occurrences in many parts of the country. Over the past decade over three million people have been displaced by the fighting, more than 300,000 last year alone. These high levels of violence have traumatised nearly everyone in Colombia.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: November 2, 2003


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Colombia: A traumatised nation”. The programme is produced by Eric Beauchemin.

In May 2002, a mortar shell hit a small Catholic church in the village of Bojayá in north-western Colombia. 117 civilians were killed in one of the worst massacres in Colombia’s 40-year-old civil war. Every year, the massacre is commemorated by the villagers of Bojayá, religious leaders, as well as international, national and provincial representatives.

For days, people in Bojayá had been fearing an outbreak of fighting between two rival rebel groups. On May the 1st 2002, both groups occupied the village and everyone ran to the church to take refuge. 150 people managed to squeeze into the tiny building. The next day, the rebels fired a mortar rocket that crashed through the roof of the church and exploded. Arnobio Allin Blandón and his family survived because they had taken refuge in the priest’s house, but 35 members of his extended family were killed in the incident.

Arnobio Allin Blandón
Arnobio Allin Blandón  (© Eric Beauchemin)

It took four days to remove all the corpses. There was a horrible, horrible stench in the church and there were even maggots climbing the walls. We put the bodies in small boats and took them across the river to the local hospital. Finally after some time, they were brought back to Bojayá and buried in a mass grave.

We’re always thinking about what happened. I don’t have nightmares about the incident, but I do feel remorseful and sometimes I’m afraid. At times, at night at around 11 or 12, I have to go alone to turn off the electric generator, and I’m really afraid. I always try to get a couple of friends to come along with me because I’m afraid that something might happen to me. I never used to feel afraid like this.

Many other villagers say they suffer from depression, and alcoholism rates have increased. Because of the widespread attention the massacre received in the Colombian media, there have been some efforts to provide psychological support to the survivors. But most victims are left to their own devices, says María Victoria Uribe, the director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, and a researcher on violence in Colombia.

It’s a very complex problem. First massacres only have impact on the local level, so they only have impact with the victims and the families of the victims. But nationally they have a very low impact. So the victims of massacres, they have to live by themselves all the pain and all the…because nobody cares about it. In Colombia we have a very pronounced in solidarity. It’s a very pronounced individualistic type of society. So massacres are terrible. You have massacres almost every day. We used to have two or three in a day. And victims are very traumatised and they have no help.

Even though there’s violence all around the country, says Dr Cecilia Fernández, a psychiatrist at the Santo Tomás Clinic in the Colombian capital Bogotá, people in the countryside have suffered more.

Yeah, I think so because for example here in Bogotá, yes we have bombs and very bad attacks but anyway it’s not the same thing like in the country. In the country you can really hear stories that you can’t believe that are horrible, really horrible. So in Bogotá we are a little more protected and in other cities too. But in the country I don’t think this is the situation and people get caught between two fires and it’s impossible to get away.

Still, over 3 million people have managed to escape the fighting in the past decade, nearly 300-thousand last year alone. One of those who was forced to flee his village a few hundred kilometres south of Bogotá was 42-year-old Estevan Geraldo, together with his family of 5. The United Self-Defence Groups or AUC were active in the region, but one day in 1998, a group of over 4000 rebels from the FARC rebels invaded the area.

There was fighting and the rebels started setting houses on fire. The AUC tried to fight the rebels, but they were outnumbered. That’s when the 850 or so families in the area started to leave. The rebels simply told us that this land was now theirs and we had to go. About 170 people were killed in the fighting. I stayed in the region with 3 other families for another 2 weeks. We thought that eventually they would let us go back to our farms. So we moved up into the mountains and cooked at night. But when we tried to return, they started firing at us and we understood we had to leave too.

Geraldo still vividly recalls the terror he felt when the rebels first arrived.

I felt afraid of dying because the rebels were very young and they didn’t know what they were doing. Some were only 13 or 14 years old. I spoke to the commander and he was no older than 20 or 21. I was also deeply distressed when they burnt my home and all of my neighbours’ houses. I remember asking myself ‘where do I go now without any papers or money?’ My children kept hanging on to me, saying the rebels were going to kill us. It made me feel angry and very sad. I still feel that way.

This feeling of impotence is shared by many Colombians who live in the countryside. According to Donny Meertens, a social anthropologist who works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, the conflict has lasted for so many years that ordinary people no longer really understand what this war is all about. This in itself, she says, is traumatic.

It’s a very complex situation. There has been a multiplicity of actors. It’s not only confrontations between guerrilla forces and the army but also paramilitary groups. There’s splits between guerrilla groups and there are splits within the paramilitary groups also. The dynamics of conflict are very regionally determined and you see that there are many regions, many localities who have suffered from frequently shifting power-holders, armed power-holders. This means that people are losing the idea who are their friends and who are their enemies. This means also that people are losing the idea of what the violence is for. It doesn’t make any sense. And this is even more strongly felt because all actors, both paramilitary and guerrilla are using terror as a means of dominance. So this has a special effect about people’s sense of belonging and in the end their sense of identity, of personal and social identity. I think this is one of the core problems, psychological problems. Of course there are other kinds of traumatic effects, but I think that one of the core aspects of the situation in Colombia of violence on the people is this complete rupture of the social fabric. You’re not belonging anymore to a special social group, to a community. Communities are completely divided but without a reason.

Geraldo and many of the other families eventually fled to the capital with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. The loss of his roots, says Geraldo, was one of his biggest problems when he arrived in Bogotá 7 years ago. In fact, it still is. Another problem is that he and the other people who fled with his family never felt they could discuss the incident.

We talked very little about what had happened because we were wary. We didn’t know who was who in Bogotá and if we were overheard complaining about the FARC, we could face problems. But 7 years later, I still think about what happened and about our farm. I can still picture the moment we had to grab the children by the hand and run away. A few months ago, I started going to a private clinic because I’m still having flashbacks and other problems. If I think, I feel really bad and become depressed. I feel like I’m alone, with no direction in life…with nothing, because I lost everything, including my place in society. Like most of the men who have been displaced, I still don’t have a job. That’s why many wives have left their husbands. Fortunately, my wife stayed with me and the children. If she hadn’t, I’m sure I would have killed myself.

In the research that Donny Meertens has carried out for the UNHCR, she found that Geraldo’s feelings are shared by most of the displaced persons.

If you are a normal migrant – “normal” for economic reasons or for other reasons – the migration itself is part of your life project. In the case of forced migration or displacement it’s not. And this is reinforced by the sense of the not making sense of your experience of violence and your experience of not belonging. So what you see is not only a difficulty to survive in the city but also all your survival projects are in the midst of a kind of ambivalence. I found very strong presence of idealisation of the past, of nostalgia, and this is clearly a tremendous obstacle. It’s not only survival in the material sense, it is also re-find your identity and re-find your course of life.

The sheer numbers of victims make it impossible to provide financial and psychological support to many of the victims. Colombia’s huge size – the country is more than twice as big as France – is another obstacle to providing aid. And, says María Victoria Uribe, it also means that there’s little awareness about the violence in Colombian society unless an incident occurs nearby.

María Victoria Uribe, Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History
María Victoria Uribe, Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History  (© Eric Beauchemin)

Geographically, Colombia is very complex. You have lots of jungle and you have huge mountains. And you have regions, isolated regions between the mountains and the jungle and between the jungle and the sea. So what you have in Colombia is a very strong regional identities. And the national level is kind of blurred in that context. What you have is you know this regional identity is very pronounced, but for example when a massacre happens in Antioquia, Antioqueños care about it and Antioqueños speak about it. Antioqueños feel deep inside that they are killing their people. But next to Antioquia we have for example Chocó, which is a black region. They don’t care. They don’t think it’s their problem. Or in the south, in Nariño, they don’t care what happens to the Antioqueños. So I told you at the beginning, it’s very individualistic and isolated and everybody cares about his family inner circle and maybe known people, but beyond that they don’t care much.

Nonetheless, the violence of the past 40 years has been so pervasive that almost every family has been affected in one way or another. The media, says Dr. Fernández, also makes sure that society doesn’t forget the bloody nature of the ongoing civil war.

I blame sometimes the media because what I think is that they don’t see the damage that they can do with all the images. Sometimes people had to see other persons mutilated, dead, bleeding, the explode and all that stuff. And I don’t think that that’s builds something. You can also give the news without showing the horrible part. People understand what is a bomb and that a person is dead, injured. They don’t have to look at it to catch that idea. So I think in a certain way we are also sensitised to it because we have more difficulties to react to that because we are so used to see it on TV and on the radio and everywhere that we don’t react anymore.

Paradoxically, though, says Alvaro Uribe, many Colombians simply try to ignore the violence around them.

We’re saturated and we don’t want to listen about it. That’s a fact. But before la violencia you had the same behaviour: very isolated, individualistic behaviour. So I think it has to do with the personality of Colombian people but also has to do with lots of violence, every day, every year. So we’re totally fed up with violence. EB: What type of effect does it have on the psyche to have this high level of violence, constant violence? Well apparently not much. You can meet with people that had lots of episodes of violence and they manage to keep on. They manage to keep on. I think women in Colombia have the worst part and very silent part because they killed their husbands, they killed their sons and they stay alone with little children and you know they never say nothing. I think women are very silent. They just keep everything inside of them. EB: But internalising that pain, I mean it causes problems doesn’t it? Of course it causes problems. I think this is a very traumatised society, very much. Do you see high levels of depression also? Well, it’s very interesting. They say we have very high levels of depression but you see Colombians, they dance, they sing. So it’s like we have a schizophrenia. I think we are very melancholic and very depressive and we sing and we dance because we don’t want to see the depression. We don’t want to see the sadness. It’s very interesting the way we behave with pain. EB: It’s a way to block it out. Yes.

But according to Donny Meertens, the ongoing violence is having a profound impact on all levels of Colombian society.

You see a lot of depression. You see a lot of violence in the family. And in the case of youngsters, male youngsters crime. That’s one of the big problems. There is a clear tendency of alcohol abuse among the men mostly. Drug abuse I think more specifically amongst youngsters, and related with criminal activities. But I think there is one general effect which is very important and which is maybe specific to Colombia and that is the very, very long history of violence which reproduces itself family after family. It’s not only a historical trend. It’s also embedded in the family history. This creates attitudes of resolving conflicts, any kind of conflicts, by violent ways at any level. So I think this is one of the strongest effects of what is happening in Colombia.

The government and many charity groups or NGOs recognised the high levels of violence in Colombian society, says Donny Meertens, but until recently they had been unwilling to link that to trauma and psycho-social problems.

Well, the whole system of assistance like always but has been lagging behind the reality. The first thing to be organised is emergency assistance. And for several years, I think, this was the main thing they were doing. Then mostly by NGOs the psycho-social assistance was taken up. The last two years, there have been many discussions and finally at least at the formal level, the official state assistance has accepted that it is important to promote and to organise psycho-social assistance.

As a result, charities are now working with specific groups of victims such as children, women, men or former combatants. Many of these initiatives have been on a small scale, but they have led to increasingly innovative projects to help people deal with their traumas, such as theatre, painting and other types of artistic expressions. The government too is beginning to promote psychosocial assistance, but Donny Meertens sees problems with the government’s new approach.

I think that one of the losses that may occur is that the government is going to concentrate all its post-emergency assistance on return movements while the most part of the individually displaced persons or family displacement is in big cities and there are very, very few possibilities for return. The idea of the government is to incorporate these displaced families in the let’s say ‘normal’ policies for vulnerable groups and this means a loss of positive action, a loss of the recognition of specific rights for displaced people. There is a pressure from NGOs and from the organizations of displaced people that it is not only psycho-social assistance but also creation of economic possibilities, of stabilization and of social re-integration.

But job creation is not a high priority for the government because of the large amounts of money it has to reserve for military spending and to stamp out the drug trade. So again, local groups are trying to take the initiative. One of them is Betty Puerto of the Popular Feminist Organisation, which has been working for nearly 3½ decades in the city of Barrancabermeja, about 250 kilometres north of the capital.

We’re running a major psycho-social support programme in Barrancabermeja. We believe that the support has to include economic aid, legal assistance, health care as well as purely psycho-social support, because if a woman doesn’t have work or if she’s afraid, then this is also affecting her mental state. But because so many women have been affected, all we can provide them is support. We’re working with two other organisations which can actually provide psychological treatment to severely traumatised women.

Donny Meertens believes that women, especially those who are displaced in the countryside, are in need of extra psychological support.

For many peasant women, especially peasant women of very remote areas, the uprooting means a complete rupture with their whole world because their world was more limited to primary relations, to family, to neighbourhood, much more than men. This is the first thing I think the rupture affects them more. A second reason is that still most of the direct victims of the violence are men. So in the movement of displaced people, there are many widows. A third reason, you can say that this rupture affects them very much: this is the danger of sexual violence, not only as I have seen in many parts of the world as part of the act of armed domination but also in the displacement process itself. Women are very vulnerable because they’re much more disoriented. They have no family. Usually it’s the first time for them to come to the city. So there are a whole series of risks that are especially for women.

While there is growing awareness among the general public and the government about the need to deal with traumatised civilians, there has been virtually no attention devoted to the psychological needs of the former combatants, whether they be from the army or one of the various rebel groups. Ildefonso Enau was a member of the Popular Liberation Army, a Maoist group which was disbanded in 1991. He’s now the director of the Progesar Foundation, which is working to stimulate social development, democracy and peace. He says that the fact that his group received almost no help to return to normal life was in itself traumatic.

We had to completely readapt to civilian life, especially those of us who had spent years with the rebels in rural areas. We had to leave our weapons and the organisation behind and build a completely new life. I wasn’t injured and didn’t suffer from traumas. So I was psychologically healthy, but still, I found it difficult to reintegrate into civilian society because our lives had been dominated by the rebel group. We as individuals did not exist outside of the group: they provided us with food, clothing, health care, everything. So our future was the revolution. When we were demobilised, it was as if the rug were pulled out from under us. If we wanted to eat, we had to find food. If we wanted to study, we had to find schools. So all the things which the rebel group did for us, we suddenly had to do for ourselves. And that’s a very traumatic process, especially because life with the rebels was like being in a family. Many people felt disoriented and that they had betrayed their comrades. I remember watching videos of us surrendering our arms 5 or 6 years later and people were crying.

In addition, the former rebels received a distinctly cold welcome from other rebel groups and Colombian society itself.

The armed groups were constantly threatening us. Most of us came from rural areas and we were forced to flee the countryside for the cities. Usually it was the paramilitaries who forced us to flee, but in the rebel-controlled areas, it was the rebels who forced us to leave. In addition, civilian society heavily stigmatised us. Some comrades found jobs in semi-public institutions – for example in the construction of the underground in Medellín or other publicly-financed projects. But a couple of months later when officials found out that they had been rebel fighters, they fired them. And that stigma exists even today. So civilians fear us a lot and the armed groups view us as a threat. The government is very ignorant about the whole subject, and frankly it hasn’t shown any interest in learning more.

This rejection continues to cause psychological problems for many former members of the Popular Liberation Army as well as other rebels groups.

There are many cases of people still being affected by the fighting 15 years later. Sometimes the trauma is triggered by minor things such as people’s fear that they might be kidnapped by the guerrillas or the paramilitaries while driving down a road. Others become nervous when they hear a helicopter. And a lot of our former comrades simply weren’t able to leave the military life. They’re now working in government security organisations because they’re unable to do any other type of work. Others have joined the paramilitaries. And yet others have joined criminal gangs because they too were simply unable to return to civilian life.

With no end in sight to the conflict and the ongoing high levels of violence, the Colombian armed forces have also had to deal with the issue of trauma among their troops. Dr. Daniel Toledo is a psychiatrist based at a military hospital in Bogotá.

The most typical is post traumatic stress disorder. We have a very high problem with the people who lost his legs with mines or who have been in any combat, very severe. The enemy is very dangerous and very aggressive. EB: Is it a very high percentage of soldiers who come back traumatised? It’s classified. EB: What type of treatment do you provide to these soldiers? It’s difficult because we don’t know a lot of things of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the state of the art is changing every day. We use a lot of things like imagery, anti-depressants, psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, and now we are treating with new treatments. EB: Which type of treatments? It’s classified.

Traumatised soldiers are not sent to hospitals for treatment. They receive it in the field, says Dr. Toledo.

We don’t use inpatient treatment because if a patient are here for a long time don’t return to combat. EB: Is the idea to get them well enough to return to combat or simply to return to civilian life? To combat. First to combat. Maybe if he have a very big problem, he goes to civilian life. We are treating with them for about one year. EB: So during that time they stay here in Bogotá and then they are sent back. No, no. Treatment is in the field. Here only come the men with a very high problem. The soldier in the field is treated there with some kind of methods. EB: Can you elaborate on that? No. EB: During that time they’re not involved in fighting, they’re simply receiving treatment. Yes, and treatment is without medication. The more fast and the more near the combat, the treatment is made by a psychologist, a military psychologist. EB: Do you follow people up once they leave the army? Yes, well we follow the most complicated men. They are retired but we follow them. I have patients from the Korean war here.

But many people, even former soldiers, never get the psychological support they need to deal with their traumas. Oscar Buitrago is a former captain in the Colombian army. In 1991, during an ambush by rebel forces, he slipped down a hill and wound up in a minefield.

I lost my right leg. They had to amputate. I was operated on six times. Most landmine victims have to be amputated 5 or 6 times. Three years after becoming disabled, I went through a very difficult period. I started suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, as if I were going to die. I could feel the landmine exploding again. I was feeling a lot of bad things that prevented me from working, from doing anything. I was taken to a hospital emergency unit, but the doctors couldn’t find anything. They said my heart was functioning properly, but I told them it wasn’t. I kept on seeing blood and reliving the events I had experienced during the war. Even now, 8 years after suffering that bad episode of PTSD, I still have problems. For me to go to sleep, I need to feel pain. I get in a position where I’m almost seated. I put my hand behind my back so I can feel pain here in my shoulder. That’s how I fall asleep.

Oscar is now doing group therapy and soon hopes to start individual sessions. Gradually he’s begun to feel better, but it’s been a long process trying to find peace within himself. He also feels that the government hasn’t provided either former soldiers or rebels with the financial support they need to rebuild their lives.

The government gives us only a small pension. As a captain, I receive $290 a month, but a private only gets 140 or 145 dollars a month. That’s not enough to survive on if you have a family and have to pay rent. We’re trying to encourage the armed services to come up with a programme to help wounded war veterans make the transition back into civilian life because we don’t have one yet in Colombia. We believe it should apply both to former soldiers and rebels.

No section of Colombian society has been spared during the past 40 years of violence, and everyone is traumatised in one way or another. The government, local and international groups have gradually woken up to the consequences. But there are simply too many victims and perpetrators to deal with. So Colombians muddle along somehow, trying to ignore the ever-growing problem, except for commemorations such as the massacre in Bojayá in 2002.

“Colombia: A traumatised nation” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.