Colombia: Humanitarian needs increase following the latest violent upsurge

Many communities are trapped in fear of new clashes

Bogota - Displacements, restrictions on mobility and lack of access to basic goods and services such as healthcare. These are the main consequences of the escalation of the conflict in various municipalities in the Nariño, Cauca and Valle del Cauca departments of southwestern Colombia, which has caused a humanitarian crisis among the population. 

"The impact on the mental health of these people is enormous. The fear of renewed fighting and the lack of adequate shelter prevent some populations to leave their municipalities, in spite of their fear", says Pierre Garrigou, general coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Colombia. "The fighting has also led to massive displacements in some places", he adds.

The incident on April 16th that killed 11 soldiers led to a renewal of bombings by the Armed Forces. In one of these bombings 26 guerrillas were killed. Following this incident, on 22 May FARC announced an end to the unilateral ceasefire, causing an intensification of the conflict between the two sides, with fighting, harassment, bombings and explosive devices planted in populated areas. 

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

MSF response

MSF teams already working in the area have been responding to the increased humanitarian needs of the populations in these three departments since the incident where 11 soldiers died. 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 Lopez 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 Lopez 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, 'mum, mum, 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 now, we're just a pile-up. I ask myself how long we're going to be here, sleeping on the ground. "

Emergency team

"The humanitarian needs in the area continue to increase, and a mobile emergency response team is already on the ground to strengthen our regular teams in the area", explains Garrigou.

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

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.