Colombia – two countries in one

“Colombia es dos países en uno” (Colombia is two countries in one) was one of the first phrases we heard when Carmen, Laura, Jorge, Carlos, Carlos and I arrived in Colombia to start our volunteering work with Alianza por la Solidaridad (APS). This was how the representative of APS Colombia summarized the situation. Now, about three weeks later, I am starting to understand what she means.

Of cause, I had some image of Colombia in mind before I arrived. I, as well as many of my friends in Germany, imagined Colombia as being a lively country, the country of Salsa, a country of friendly people, a country with increasingly economic development and most recently the country of James. On the other hand, of cause I knew about the FARC and the over 60-year long conflict and that Colombia is, together with Sudan, the country with most internally displaced people (IDPs) worldwide: According to UNHCR between 4.9 and 5.5 million Colombians have been forced to leave their homes so far. For my parents (and I guess many Europeans their generation), this side of Colombia still overweighs. When they hear Colombia, they still first think about violence, drugs, sequestrations and murder. Before I arrived, I was quite curious how all these – somehow contrary pictures – would fit together. I asked myself, how can a country that has experienced so much violence in the past and until today, at the same time be a country full of music, dancing and friendly people?

My first impressions of the small town of Popayan (Cauca), where I will live and work for the next five months, is quite similar to what I have seen in other Latin American cities: Popayan is a beautiful colonial town with a lot of scooters and exhaust, a public transportation system of colectivos, street vendors as well as people bagging for money. In the richer area, you find parks, expensive shopping malls and people practicing all kind of sports. Security advices are quite similar to those I know from Chile, Peru or Ecuador and mainly refer to not walking alone at night, avoiding certain areas and taking care of personal belongings. But what stands out in Popayan is the music you hear and the poetry you read everywhere and especially the friendliness, warmness and happiness of its people. I think I have not been anywhere else before, where I have felt as welcomed as I do here.

So much about the everyday live in (a rather good neighborhood of) Popayan. Looking at Colombia from this perspective, I asked myself, what about the illegal groups? What about the drugs? What about the large number of IDPs? Besides of the, for me unusual, large number of armed policemen and the news on TV that constantly show who was killed where and when, I have not really seen any of this so far during my free time in Popayan.

However, this picture changes once it comes to the work of APS. Here, I started to ask, read and observe a lot. I learned that the conflict mainly takes place in rural and very remote areas where the State is only little present. This is the case in the regions Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Nariño, where APS has been working for 15 years with, among others, internally displaced people. I learned that the Colombian conflict is extremely complex and involves a large number of actors with different interests. It also differs from region to region, from municipality to municipality and even from vereda to vereda (smallest administrative unit) as well as from time to time. However, in general I think that the description of “two countries in one” summarizes the situation in Colombia quite well: On the one hand you have the (larger) cities, with economic development and a constantly growing middle class, while on the other hand there are the rural areas, where the State is little present and where the communities are highly vulnerable.

And the people? How, in the face of all these threats, can they still be so happy and friendly? Well, maybe two phrases I have already heard various times here in Popayan, can explain it:  “Uno se acostumbra a todo y todo puede llegar a ser normal” (One gets used to everything and everything can become normal) and “Lo único que uno necesita para morir es estar vivo, así disfrute la vida mientras lo tienes” (The only thing you need to die is to be alive, so enjoy live as long as you have it). What a great attitude towards life…

Katharina Diekmann