Colombia – deeps wounds and enormous smiles

You know that feeling you get when traveling and you realise that you are in the exact right place at the right time and life makes perfect sense? Well, that is what my first experience in Colombia felt like. I was happy and that kind of happy that was intoxicating, like falling in love. And in a way I did. The time I spent volunteering at Colombia Sin Fronteras, a grass-root organisation outside of South America’s oldest city Santa Marta, is one of the most inspiring and eye opening experiences of my life. For three months I dedicated my days to teaching the children the ABC’s, but I doubt I was able to make an impression anywhere close to the huge impact they had on me. We shared only a short moment together, but I left a piece of my heart with those children, who so unconditionally gave love to a stranger.

colombia kids

Live Laugh Love

Three months after returning from Latin America I started my forth and final year at university. The time was due to write my dissertation and I had decided before going on my year abroad that I would write about the Cuban Revolution. But the encounter with Colombia had been strong and the memories lay floating at the surface of my conscience when life returned to lectures and student living. I realised that my time there had changed me, but I felt I had only touched the surface of this incredible country and I was curious to know more. Personally, there were only happy, positive memories to hold on to, but they stood in stark contrast to decades of headlines on Colombia that have rarely exceeded drugs, crime and guerrillas. Only a few months after I came home, the Netflix success series Narcos hit the screens for the first time and blew new life into Pablo Escobar, which as one of the most famous Colombians of all time, saturated the impression of a nation infused with extreme brutality and endless violence. Sadly, Narcos only portrays a fraction of the unimaginable amount of violence that has swept this nation. Behind Colombia’s infamous label as the worlds drug capital, lies a less known truth of a country that has been caught in an armed conflict for over half a century. So, instead writing a paper on communism and revolution, the Colombian conflict became the motivation that led me into months of research on one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis of today.

Cartagena

The incredible sunset over Cartagena de Indias was my first experience in Colombia

Now, listen. I’m sure you have heard about the guerrillas and somewhere in the back of your mind the acronym ‘FARC’ rings a bell. You might remember their full name, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. You know they are dangerous and were they not one of the reasons why you shouldn’t go to Colombia? It turns out you know more than you thought, but maybe you don’t know why. Chances are that at some point in your life you have read news about the FARC guerrilla. Not because they have frequently been in the limelight of international media, but because they have been fighting against the Colombian State for over fifty years. However, despite it being the longest running conflict in the western hemisphere, few know much about it. Or maybe that is exactly why. Because while high intensity wars were fought in the Middle East and bombs were dropped over Syria, no one noticed that Colombia’s armed conflict developed into a ferocious battle where drug cartels and the FARC were only a fraction of the groups responsible for the exceptional violence executed on civilians.

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Boys in Medellín

It is these Colombians, who for decades have been victims of murder, kidnapping, torture, mutilation, forced disappearances and torture, that made a tremendous impression on me. How could they, who have lived through so much tragedy, be some of the most loving, friendly and positive humans I had ever met? I didn’t have the answer, but I wanted to use my writing as an opportunity to share the story of the people behind a history that would suggest anything but their remarkable, heart-warming character. So, instead of focusing my paper on the participants of war, I gave my attention to ordinary Colombians in an extraordinary situation. If I asked you what country has the highest number of internal refugees in the world, would you consider Colombia? I never did. I guess that is one of the consequences of a war that has lasted over fifty years; it becomes embedded in normality. Don’t get me wrong, war is not normal, but for many Colombians living in conflict is all they have ever known. Due to its long duration and because it has been fought mostly in the deep jungles and remote areas of the country, the conflict has developed into a low intensity war, one that very few outsiders know much about. But the fact of the matter is that out of Colombia’s 48 million inhabitants, nearly one out of seven is internally displaced and this is more than any other country in the world. Internally displaced persons (IDP) have been forced to leave their home as a result of threats or violence, but differ from refugees as they stay within their own national border. IDPs can also be results of natural disasters, but in Colombia, nearly all displacements are due to the armed conflict.

man on bike

Traditional art on the quiet streets of Uribia

The Colombian IDPs became my dissertation. In trying to understand why and how so many people have been forced to flee their homes, I was sent on a journey through Colombian history, culture and society from its very birth until present day. At times, the devastation and pure evil I came across was hardly plausible, but so was the exceptional bravery and hope of people who have been victims of the most brutal human rights violations thinkable. Colombia is the first country I truly immersed myself in, but it was not until I began writing my dissertation that I finally felt like I was grasping what this country was all about. The IDPs are an important part of Colombia today and a big part of understanding what makes this country what it is.

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Despite its reputation and continuing challenges, Medellín is a stunning city in Colombia

Although my dissertation was not travel related, the many hours of research on the internally displaced taught me something invaluable about the kind of traveller I should strive to be. I don’t want to be that backpacker who only indulges in the obvious attractions of a destination, essentially disregarding every aspect of the reality outside their little intrepid bubble. Ignorance is not bliss, it’s just plain stupid. Like Colombia, where tourism is picking up, young backpackers arrive without questioning why they no longer have to exclude the country from the gringo trail. Instead, they happily spend pesos on cheap cocaine, supporting the very industry that has caused decades of suffering they could not even begin to compromise. There is almost a one hundred percent chance that on your two weeks ‘doing’ Colombia you will meet people who have been victims of the brutality of the drug trade. I hope it is the blissfully unaware that waste their hard earned gap money getting high because, give me strength, if you knew the truth and still had the capacity to pretend that what you did was acceptable.

What right do we have to travel if we do not have the decency to respect and understand life where we venture?

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During my 3 months in Santa Marta I didn’t see a drop of rain. The end of every day looked like this

Colombians are just one people with their own peculiar reality, but it is their reality I want to share with you in the coming weeks. Based on my dissertation on the internally displaced, each Friday I will post a piece about Colombia and how it has become the home of nearly seven million IDPs.

Hopefully, it will teach you something new that will encourage you on your travels to engage in more than just a guide book and realise that behind the enticement of a destination are the lives of ordinary people who are products of their history. We have a responsibility as travellers to engage with the past to understand the present that we are a part of.

At the very least, I hope also you will understand Colombia a bit better, an incredible country with a lot of deep wounds hidden by enormous smiles.

cartagena streetart

This amazing piece of graffiti from Getsemaní in Cartagena sums up my memories of Colombia; colourful, smiling, sometimes in your face, but always beautiful

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