Colombia - a society in reverse

Magdalena is crying. Her baby died last month, although we tried to save him by taking him to a local hospital. My attempted words of comfort fall short. The untold story here is of a society in reverse - the abandoned health posts, broken-down rural schools, the teachers, health workers and community leaders forced to flee, families broken apart by civil war, tormented by the disappearances of their loved ones.
"He died the next day. He was so weak,"she laments. "I couldn't afford to bury him in the cemetery, so we dug a hole at my sisters house." Well, it wasn't really Magdalena's baby - he was orphaned after his real mother bled to death after giving birth in the rural settlement of Batata, in northwest Colombia. At first no-one in the sleepy village wanted the newborn - bad luck, they said. So Magdalena took him in, but she had no money to buy him food and he became ill. She had fallen stubbornly in love with the baby and the tears are now very real. In a sense, the short-lived orphan is another victim of Colombia's 38-year civil war, though it is unlikely his demise will ever be counted in the annual toll of about 3,000 deaths from the civil war. The untold story here is of a society in reverse - the abandoned health posts, broken-down rural schools, the teachers, health workers and community leaders forced to flee, families broken apart by civil war, tormented by the disappearances of their loved ones. A young mother and a baby dying for lack of a village nurse. We try and visit Batata every two months, in two cars loaded with medics and medicines - a three-hour journey through the lush hills of north-west Colombia. We set up in the empty health post, attending the campesinos that ride in on mule-back from surrounding settlements. Outside the men talk is of the yam harvest, when the rains will come again, the price of donkeys, and in carefully coded words the ever-present armed conflict. Women and children press against the iron gates of the health post compound. Young soldiers walk by, nervous and draped down with ammunition belts. Batata is a hot zone, a pressure point on a barographic map of the conflict. The hills to the west hide a corridor for guns and contraband to the Caribbean coast. The hills further to the south hide coca fields. Under the cloak of the conflict a quiet struggle is taking place between right-wing paramilitary and left-wing guerrillas for control of the drug trade and illegal logging operations. Batata is in the crossfire. Many villagers have left. Many houses stand empty. Those that stay have their own reasons, often unspoken. Some are just prisoners of poverty - a jeep-ride to town and back costs more than a sack of corn. And for 'campesinos' from even more remote settlements, Batata is actually a safe haven. So people displace to Batata, as well as away from it. Inside the health post our nurse checks an elderly farmer. "So you have a headache. For how long?" "Oooh, a long time." "But when?" "Since Monday..." "Only two days then..." "No, the Monday before. But my knee hurts when I work in the fields." "So now it's your knee. I thought it was your head." "Well, sometime my knee, then sometimes my head." "So what's worse - your head or your knee...?" "Actually, it's my granddaughter...she has malaria." A shivering girl is led to the desk. In dusty consulting rooms the doctors work steadily through their caseloads. Malaria, diarrhoea, infected wounds, skin rashes, chest infections and a standard pack of tropical ailments. Time is short. For safety reasons we must be back at base by nightfall. If we have time we will make some repairs to the health post, fixing rainwater channels and cracks in the cement tank that supplies water. If we run out of time, the work will have to wait for another two months. Sometimes the tide of conflict briefly recedes, normality resurges, but not for long. In October of last year, local health workers returned to Batata. We were there to help them settle in. The success was short-lived. A week later, paramilitary gunmen walked into town and killed two local traders. Three days later a column of guerrillas marched by, selected and threatened 30 families to 'leave by tomorrow or die'. The families left, walking day and night with all the possessions they could carry along the muddy road to the nearest town. That is Tierralta, a bustling place known as a stronghold of the paramilitary gangs. In Colombian towns the displaced - two million by latest estimates - quickly become the forgotten. Back in the rural zone of Batata, families frequently face the dilemma of whether to join the tide of displaced, or stay put. Lately things have been quiet. On our most recent visit a community leader tells me of hopeful new plans to bring back government health workers to the health post. "By next month it could all be back to normal," he says with a smile and shakes his head. "Yes, back to normal," I agree. But neither of us really thinks so. Steve Hide is a British logistician working with MSF.