Colombia: Humanitarian Needs Increase Amid Escalating Violence

Valérie Batselaere/MSF
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BOGOTÁEscalated conflict in southwestern Colombia has led to a humanitarian crisis of displacement, restriction on mobility, and lack of access to basic goods and services, including health care, said the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) on Wednesday.

"The impact on the mental health of these people is enormous,” said Pierre Garrigou, general coordinator for MSF in Colombia, referring to people living in various municipalities in the Nariño, Cauca, and Valle del Cauca departments of southwestern Colombia. The fear of renewed fighting and the lack of adequate shelter prevent some populations [from leaving] their municipalities. The fighting has also led to massive displacements in some places.”

An incident on April 16, in which 11 soldiers were killed, led to a renewal of bombings by the armed forces. In one of these bombings 26 guerrilla fighters were killed. Following this incident, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced an end to the unilateral ceasefire, leading to weeks of increased fighting, harassment, bombings, and the planting of explosive devices in populated areas.

In May and June, a total of 525 violent incidents were recorded throughout the country, 75 percent of which occurred in the southwestern departments, according to UN data.

MSF teams already working in the area have been responding to increased humanitarian needs since the April 16 incident. About 1,800 people have participated in mental health activities, including individual and group attention, psychosocial activities, and training in psychological first aid. 

In the municipality of López de Micay, where displaced people have arrived, the teams also distributed hygiene and cooking kits, as the living conditions in the shelter sites are very precarious.

A patient seen by MSF with symptoms of acute stress in the hall of the Micay de López school—on the Cauca Pacific coast where there are 865 newly displaced people—arrived with her four children:

"When the bombing started, I fell to the floor. I heard them running around the yard. The children started crying, everything sounded so close by. When they started shooting, the children were crying and said to me, 'Mom, mom, are we going to die?' And I told them to be quiet, and we stayed on the floor until dawn. I don't want to remember that horror, but every day the memories come, they close the door and there I am in pain. Where we are living now, we're just piled up. I ask myself how long we're going to be here, sleeping on the ground."

The humanitarian needs in the area continue to increase, and a mobile emergency response team is already on the ground to strengthen MSF’s response, said Garrigou.

The mobile emergency team—comprising a psychologist, a doctor, and a logistician—is currently in the rural area of Tumaco, assessing needs following an attack on June 22 on the trans-Andean pipeline, which occurred in a rural area and affected 301 communities in the river Mira area. Furthermore, in the urban center, where in the last month there have been 41 violent incidents, 150,000 inhabitants have been left without a source of water.

MSF has been working in the Cauca and Nariño departments of Colombia since 1985. In Cauca, MSF teams provide individual and group therapy in hospitals and communities. It also provides training to community leaders, health promoters, midwives, and teachers so that they can provide psychological first-aid when they are caught up in violence events.