Dancing in the dark

There are six murders a day in Colombia, where homicide is the first cause of death for men between 14 and 44; where, in Cali, just three in 10 men make it to age 30 - leading to the ominous ratio of six women for every man. For the first six months of this year 1,225 assassinations were recorded in Cali (and for every homicide, seven others are wounded).

What do you know about Colombia? On the flight to Bogota, the piped-in salsa music gives one answer, and, after the superior airline coffee, the packet of star-bright sugar suggests a third: the shiny five-gram dose in clear cellophane promises azucar alta pureza : high purity sugar - what, can you really avoid wondering, is sugar usually cut with?

With an afternoon to kill before moving on to Cali - Colombia's third-largest and most violent city - I make a terrified ascent on the cable car to the Santuario de Montserrate, the holy site perched high above the already dizzyingly high capital.

The view is spectacular, but closer to hand are more vivid marvels: the crystalline blocs of coloured ice for sale: hibiscus pink; a peanut-flavoured beige and milky aqua for "chicle" - or gum-flavoured ice-cream, the latter favoured by the clutch of khaki-clad boy cadets who roam Montserrate, pausing to carve their names into the stone wall that stops visitors from touching the view.

Beyond the delinquent army trainees, an alleyway snakes behind the vast Church of Montserrate, and all along it 20-odd kiosks and diners serve up identical grub: flame-roasted corn, rice wrapped in banana leaves, fried stuffed plantains - vats of scorched body parts: lungs, hearts, intestines and other spiked innards. To these vertiginous heights, my guidebook tells me, the faithful make their weekly pilgrimage, to worship "Seor Caido" - Mr Fallen - referring, I think, to Christ carrying the cross, stumbling under its weight.

The body parts, and Sr Caido, are all on my mind as I begin to ingest the facts, given to me in bulk by Médecins Sans Frontières, whose projects I've come to visit: six murders a day in Colombia, where homicide is the first cause of death for men between 14 and 44; where, in Cali, just three in 10 men make it to age 30 - leading to the ominous ratio of six women for every man. For the first six months of this year 1,225 assassinations were recorded in Cali (and for every homicide, seven others are wounded).

"More violent than Iraq," says Antonio da Silva, head of the Colombian mission of MSF - and he is referring not to the political violence that has engulfed the country for 40 years, but to social, urban violence, which in many parts of the country has become normal. The project's simple but here novel method of dealing with this grisly diet combines basic doctoring with psychiatric help, as well as physiotherapy; most important, perhaps, the doors remain open after the visible wounds have settled. MSF, which sends volunteer doctors all over the oppressed world, has significantly expanded the concept of "health care" - so that, for example, one murdering Caleo, 22-year-old Pablo, got shot, got through the program and hung up his holster; now he's selling roses instead.

"More violent than Iraq," says Antonio da Silva, head of the Colombian mission of MSF - and he is referring not to the political violence that has engulfed the country for 40 years, but to social, urban violence, which in many parts of the country has become normal.

Over the past six years 2,764 victims of violence have received treatment from MSF, situated in the pounding heart of the Aguablanca district of Cali. Many people here were, a generation ago, desplazados, displaced Colombians fleeing their country's interminable, complicated, armed conflict (the term "civil war" lends a legitimacy none of the combatants can claim), and the District, as it is known, still has the feel of a world apart.

Residents speak of "going to Cali", even though their area and its 600,000 inhabitants occupy nearly a third of the city grid. As if physical violence weren't enough, they face a harder-to-treat structural violence whereby no one will hire anyone from el distrito - there is no getting out (and it is not so easy getting in: no taxi driver will take you there.)

Justine Simons, the coordinator of the Aguablanca project and herself a psychologist, says "the main achievement of this project is the confidence and proximity gained with a traditionally suspicious and inconsistent population". Violent gangs supply much of this population. Aguablanca has 130 barrios [districts], and each of these supports two or three gangs - with names like El Palo, the stick, La Gallera, the cockfight corral, and Los Simpsons. Others sound like medieval guilds: Los Lecheros , the milkmen, or Los Panaderos , the bakers. Reserved for elderly hoodlums (say, 25 year olds) is a gang called Los Abuelos, the grandfathers, but, remembering the figures for early death as well as for early parenthood (I met several 15-year-old mothers), the name may be entirely without irony.

At Maroquin Cauquita, the city-run health centre that is now taking over the MSF project, opposite the clap-happy church of Cristo Seor de la Vida, the survivors of violent attack undertake their physiotherapy. The quadriplegic in the yellow football shirt, I later learn, is a contract killer and ex-trafficker, who killed his first man (and his first woman) at 12.

But there are not only very bad boys here. On the day I visit, side-by-side on the mats with the bad boys, there was Luz Mary, a middle-aged woman hit through both hips by a stray bullet; Alvaro and Manuel, a pair of builders similarly felled; a shopkeeper injured during a robbery; handsome Jorge, a 30-year-old quadriplegic who has no one to look after him and who doesn't know why he was hit or by whom; and there was Bryan, a shy 10 year old come to physio with his father, who patiently brushes the boy's withered limbs (for stimulation). Bryan was shot in the head by another 10 year old: his friend, who was angry that Bryan didn't want to play with him anymore.

But there are not only very bad boys here. On the day I visit, side-by-side on the mats with the bad boys, there was Luz Mary, a middle-aged woman hit through both hips by a stray bullet; Alvaro and Manuel, a pair of builders similarly felled; a shopkeeper injured during a robbery; handsome Jorge, a 30-year-old quadriplegic who has no one to look after him and who doesn't know why he was hit or by whom; and there was Bryan, a shy 10 year old come to physio with his father, who patiently brushes the boy's withered limbs (for stimulation). Bryan was shot in the head by another 10 year old: his friend, who was angry that Bryan didn't want to play with him anymore.

Rejection is a strong mover among the perpetrators of violence - though not always so plainly as in the case of Lady, a 17-year-old quadriplegic, shot in the back by the boyfriend she spurned.

Sometimes there is reunion. One of the most effecting sights in the rehab ward is of these cut-down hard men aided in their exercises by a woman, usually their mama. And they are in for the long haul. In Brazil, gangs shoot to kill, according to Antonio da Silva, himself a Brazilian; but in Colombia, they aim to maim, and spinal injuries prevail.

At current rates, Cali, "salsa capital of the world", is set also to host the world's greatest concentration of disabled people. Nike brand clothes, the only necessity rival gangs agree on, might be persuaded to sponsor this army of the fallen.

And they'll have to rebuild the city: not a ramp in sight as you drive around, dodging car accidents and starving horses, wondering at the magnificent tropical blooms that flourish amid the rubble; there is no wheelchair access anywhere, a fact that speaks of the invisibility of this population.

Outside the rehab centre, going to visit other survivors of this unremarked war, we (I am heavily chaperoned at all times and not allowed in el distrito after 5 pm) pass through the pathetic "territories" of the various gangs: one or two city blocks of unrendered brick or breeze-block houses - unfinished houses like so much unfinished business here.

Only the ironmonger is getting the job done: almost every humble front yard in Aguablanca is caged. Safe at home, we find Ana Milena, a pretty, slight, young-looking 25 year old, and her daughter Geraldin Emilse.

Ana Milena was stabbed in the stomach and neck by her partner in the middle of morning traffic, witnessed by dozens of people, including Geraldin Emilse, then not quite three. Colombia's controversial president, Alvaro Uribe, claims the violence is down, even if workers in the field beg to differ and the local press is crammed with contrary statistical evidence. But the desire to wish the violence away is, apparently, profoundly human.

Geraldin Emilse, her hair bunched in elastics decorated with tiny trainers, has always insisted to psychologists that her mother was hit by a bus, not by her father. Even a shining survivor like Ana Milena - articulate, unembittered, afraid (in triumphant recovery of appropriate emotion, uncommon amid all this numbing violence) - tends to downplay the depth of violence in her world. It wasn't until after I met her that I learned her younger sister had also been hit, by a neighbour's gun. That sister, a quadriplegic as a result of the attack, subsequently died.

Aguablanquinos are victims of poverty and exclusion, with no protection (though here police do sell protection: guns as well as drivers' licences), and very often the family has fallen away - four of the quadriplegics who were helped by MSF have died in the past six months because their families couldn't manage the minimum, to turn them every two hours.

Outsider is not, however, a term of distinction here. Across a littered playing field we visit a shantytown, La Esperanza, home to more recent desplazados , some of the three million exiles fleeing violence somewhere else in Colombia. In front of their slanting wood huts a lively group of women (women account for three-quarters of all desplazados ) are talking about the names they have given their children. I meet a Kevin, named for Kevin Costner, and his sister Melanie, for Ms Griffiths. The popularity of English names all over Colombia is inexplicable; maybe it is just joyous elaboration of the rare opportunity naming presents: for choice, for some measure of control over your life.

"No credit" says a scrawled note in a shop the size of an outhouse, the place to buy cigarettes and biscuits, singly. No credit, but also no healthcare for desplazados who remain more than six months, and no free school for anyone. The generosity and cheer of these women who laughingly show me their digs is, I know, typical of people with the very least. And I won't easily forget the garden of one desplazada , Sara, a 44-year-old grandmother of four: a neat pumpkin patch carved out from the avalanche of garbage leading down to a festering lagoon, leaking dengue and hepatitis and skin disease.

That night I went to a party far from el distrito , on a starlit rooftop in Cali, looking across to the fairy lights of a different deadly neighbourhood, and I danced a vallenato with a charming colonel of the Colombian army. Everyone in Colombia is charming, and everyone, despite everything, can dance a vallenato (and cumbia, salsa, merengue, tropical, bolero, pasodoble and chirimia); the combination captures the martyred, curiously romantic atmosphere of a place engulfed by deeply unromantic dramas.

Why is Colombia so violent? "This is a land of privilege, not rights," explains Antonio (the discretionary dispensation of emergency medical care is one proof). To be sure, violence is the means by which people have always made themselves heard, protected their territories - usually greater than a few inner-city blocks.

People blame cocaine, but it goes much further back: to the independence wars, the dozens of civil wars, the countless uprisings, the coups d'etat, the wars with Ecuador... but also, you will hear, it is down to a rugged ter rain other guerrillas can only dream about (the FARC, or should we say los abuelos, is the oldest guerrilla movement in the western hemisphere). A whole chunk of Colombian history (1948-64) is referred to as La violencia ; one ticket into today's parliament is a bloody revolutionary or paramilitary past.

"Give us a government in which law is obeyed, magistrates respected and people are free!" wrote the Libertador Simon Bolivar in 1828, on the eve of independence, in his quinta in Santaf de Bogota. On the way home, I have a chance to visit the fragrant quinta - a cool and simple plantation-style house hidden in a riotous garden. It was here that Bolivar (himself a famous and fanatical dancer) sketched his hopes for the Colombian constitution. I notice that the garden paths are intricately patterned with bones: cut in cross-section to make hollow coin-sized discs (18,000 bones to be exact, or the femurs of 4,500 cows.) So you wonder how many more bones will become paving before el distrito, that is, Colombia, is truly liberated.