Time for U.S., Colombia to deliver for conflict victims

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Paula is from the western department of Valle de Cauca. The department is crisscrossed by drug corridors that end at the Pacific Ocean port of Buenaventura, where according to a 2008 State Department cable, “the FARC, renegade former paramilitaries, and narco-gangs battle for control.” The regional conflict is such that civilians have no chance to remain on the sidelines, and armed groups repeatedly sweep into towns and brutalize the population, frequently raping women.

Paula is among those who were raped – one of an estimated 15,000 conflict rape victims throughout the country. After being violated by several paramilitaries, she decided she had to flee her home, taking her children to Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. There, she was able to register as an IDP and receive some psychological care, but it was inconsistent and of poor quality.  Unable to secure a regular income, and stuck in one of the most violent areas the city, Paula finally decided she could not cope any longer and moved again. And again.

Over the course of two more ill-fated moves, Paula was raped once more and her daughter suffered the same fate. She now resides in Cali’s most notorious slum, where tens of thousands of IDPs live amongst illegal armed groups competing for power. Sadly, Paula’s son was pulled into one such armed group, lured by promises of nice clothes and fancy sneakers.

Paula has traveled an unfathomably traumatic journey. She is scarred psychologically and regularly suffers bouts of depression. Her physical health is beginning to fail, too. Paula depends on the patchwork of assistance she gets from government agencies – when they have enough funds to help her - but she often runs out of food and goes hungry for days at a time.

As Paula shares her story with me, her suffering is visible on her face. Nevertheless, she says, it’s a story that has to be told.  Too many IDPs are just like her: struggling to overcome poverty, trauma, and stigmatization in their home country, all the while invisible to the outside world.

Paula’s story makes it clear that while no sum of money can undo the suffering of displacement, there are things that must be done to help the victims. Some in the Colombian government, including President Juan Manuel Santos, have realized this and started a new national discourse on the rights of IDPs and conflict victims. They have created new aid institutions, put the displaced at the heart of local development plans, and placed hundreds of social workers in regional centers. The president’s plan is a good one, but a lack of clarity about the role of various agencies, insufficient funding, and huge staffing shortages threaten to derail implementation.

As Colombia rolls out this new campaign, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) should lend a hand. USAID should push for individualized aid programs that meet the needs of displaced people like Paula, and they should start working in urban settings like Cali to make sure these programs are effective. Furthermore, USAID should directly fund local non-government organizations to perform oversight and ensure that assistance really gets to those who need it.

Paula and the millions like her deserve to live healthy and productive lives. And they can, once Bogotá and Washington start turning years of promises into real results.

Hanson is the government relations advocate for Refugees International, a non-profit organization that advocates to end displacement and statelessness crises worldwide and receives no government or UN funding.