The misery of urban slums - Colombia's cycle of violence

I do not want to live here anymore. Yesterday, when the army killed those two young men on the bike when they did not stop at the roadblock, we knew there we going to be problems. Last night they cut off the electricity supply. They always do that when these things happen. I am afraid because usually after these things happen the guerrillas attack the army in town, and if there are soldiers killed one does not know what will happen to us. —Young man living in an urban slum

"I had to leave my hometown after my father was murdered. They shot him from the back, a bullet in the back of his neck. I do not really know why. I was there when it happened.

"I saw it all. He fell without a scream, the back of his shirt all covered in blood. After he was killed, they told me: "Tell your family this is a warning". At that point my wife and I knew we could not live there anymore. We were terrified. We had to leave quickly, without thinking about the future, and trying not to think about the past. The problems of daily life have since then become our only concern. Where to go, finding a place to sleep, finding something to eat and feeding our daughter.

"We left everything behind — the small plot of land, the animals, and the other few belongings we had managed to gather over the years — and left immediately. Some of my brothers left as well, but some decided to stay. We did not have time to discuss what happened. We never said goodbye properly. It never occurred to me that we were not going to see each other again." — Father living in an urban slum

The story above resounds with a sad familiarity to anyone working in the slums of any town or big city in Colombia. Patterns of forced displacement during the last decade show a constant influx of people fleeing the violence and insecurity of rural areas. Forced displacement in Colombia does not happen en masse, but rather on an individual or family basis. Many people make a first attempt to settle in rural towns or mid-sized municipalities.

They set off later to bigger cities after further threats or a lack of opportunities.

Slowly but steadily, urban slums have spread on the outskirts of almost every city across the country. Colombians call them barrios de invasión, literally "invaded" neighbourhoods. Out of sight and out of mind, those fleeing violence try to rebuild their lives in these slums.

In Sincelejo (Sucre), where MSF works, figures show an estimated 100,000 of the city's 270,000 residents are displaced. Many of them live in precarious, one or tworoom houses made of cane and mud or plastic sheeting. Most houses in these slums lack a water supply or electricity.

In many of these slums, there is no sewage system and human waste often ends up in nearby streams or on plots of land where children and animals play.

Fear and distrust

Leaving everything behind and struggling to start a life in a foreign place is daunting. In addition to their accounts of deprivation and hardship, most of the newly arrived displaced interviewed by MSF talk about the rejection and distrust they experience from those who already live in the slums.

"They look at the displaced like we were the worst thing. To be displaced is like being branded with a mark that you can never remove... They look at us like we are bad. Like they say "who knows what [armed] group they belong to." And it's the reverse; you have to keep running so you don't get confused with the groups...
— A mother living in an urban slum

When asked about the health needs of people arriving in the slums, one community member in one of the neighbourhoods in which MSF works, replied:

"The displaced? Please do not talk to me about the displaced. If you are here to help the displaced we have nothing to discuss. Most of them are liars. They move to this area to take advantage of the situation and try to get some free assistance, a mattress, and some food... We do not want them here. You cannot really trust them. If it is true that they have come here fleeing the armed groups, then I wonder what they have done to feel so threatened. Maybe they are guerrillas themselves..."

Rejection and exclusion are a source of suffering and stress for the displaced. The social bonds or networks that people rely on under normal circumstances are missing. Many times there is no help from family members or neighbours. They have no job and no income.