Colombia’s Challenging Reality
They could see the waters rising for days. Each morning the rain kept coming, and each afternoon the muddy tidemark would inch further up the bank. Ricardo recalls those moments as we walk around his small village, nestled in the mangroves along the Magdalena River in northern Colombia.
His bare feet squelch through the deep mud, while large pools of stagnant water remain, covering their crops and polluting their well. With a faint smile he points out the remains of logs strewn in the distance that he and his neighbours positioned in desperate futile attempts to divert the inevitable.
The next day, it wasn’t about measuring in inches, but feet, and the logs – along with his home – were gone.
People think they know Colombia. They have seen selected extracts of its rich history immortalised in myths; from El Dorado, the lost city of Gold, to the drugs trade and the notorious individuals behind it. But this façade, so often scripted in Hollywood and played out on screen, does not, cannot, even begin to articulate the history of the place, or indeed life for so many of the population. The truth, as is often the case, runs far deeper.
Colombia is marvelled for the variety it has within its borders; beaches, rainforests, desert, and mountains all sit alongside each other with breath-taking beauty. An ecological microcosm which would be hard to find anywhere else. Sadly, Colombia is also a humanitarian microcosm, facing multiple and simultaneous challenges. Each alone would be enough to push it over the edge, but combined they pose a very real threat. The reality is, for all the misconceptions, for all the silver screen myths, for all the beauty, Colombia teeters in a precarious balance.
Venezuela, Floods, and Civil War
With neighbouring Venezuela plunging further into both political and economic despair, vast numbers of Venezuelans are leaving, with almost all of them seeking safety in Colombia first. No country could adequately manage such a situation, and Colombia is no different. Meanwhile, the rainy seasons are intensifying, and large parts of the country are regularly flooded, forcing millions from their homes, and destroying traditional livelihoods.
And then there is the war, which despite a much-celebrated peace deal, still rages, affecting so many in this beguiling country. From the golden beaches in the north, through the high Andean Mountain range, across the fertile coffee plantations, and down to the Amazon rainforest, this country bears the scars from this devasting conflict.
These perils sit as an ever-present backdrop to everyday life for so many; a stage on which so many interwoven stories unfold. Having spent some time here and heard how many Colombians are affected has been hard, and casts a long shadow on everything we have been led to believe about the place. But like the vibrant salsa music, seemingly emanating from all around, there is a strong undercurrent of strength and the sense of community togetherness is palpable.
Community Spirit and our Support
Thanks to the supporters of World Jewish Relief and the START Fund we have been able to respond to two instances of devastating floods across the country in the last six months; supporting in the short-term with food packages and sanitation kits through our tireless local partners Abbacol. This part of humanitarian response is by no means easy – simply accessing these flood-hit communities is hard – but like the country itself, the ongoing humanitarian efforts run far deeper. And they are being led by people like Ricardo. People and communities who possess that inner strength; from the monitoring of the water levels, to the laying of logs; from the evacuation of homes, to the taking-in of neighbours; from the clean-up operation, to the rebuilding.
As we near the end of my visit, I am taken to the village cemetery, which also sits beneath several feet of dark opaque water. The floods have disturbed graves and brought remains to the surface. When even the peace of the dead is no longer guaranteed, you have to admire the commitment and bravery of those like Ricardo.