Since November 2016, the Government of Colombia has been working to implement a peace agreement with the country’s largest guerrilla group, FARC, to end a 50-year old conflict which has claimed over 200 000 lives and created the largest caseload of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world – a figure of 7.3 million according to government figures. But the volatile transitional phase has seen an increase in violence in several parts of the country, as remaining armed groups compete for territorial control. One such region is the remote area of Catatumbo in the mountainous Norte de Santander department.
In Catatumbo, humanitarian needs remain dire. Disease prevails due to poor water and hygiene conditions, a lack of infrastructure and social services. Unexploded ordnances and landmines pose a constant threat to the civilian population. With almost no transportation or basic health services, Catatumbo’s inhabitants are isolated and vulnerable.
With €370 000 in funding from the European Commission, the Norwegian, Spanish and Colombian Red Cross have teamed up to deliver life-saving assistance to local residents.
As of April 2016, the project aims to reach over 10 000 people over a 12-month period, providing primary, life-saving health care with medical consultations and the distribution of prenatal packs and community first aid kits, thanks to mobile health units which travel out to distant villages. To date, 3 873 medical consultations and 13 385 nursing procedures have been undertaken. As the trauma of war seriously affects local communities, 235 psychological support consultations were also provided,
“Catatumbo’s people are not only in better physical and psychological health, able to lead productive lives benefitting their community, thanks to the project,” says Silvya Bolliger, a Programme Assistant with the Commission's European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations in Colombia, “but they are more aware of health and diseases issues, which is crucial in the absence of health infrastructure and personnel in the region.”
The project also provides protection programmes, such as landmine-awareness workshops, training on human rights and International Humanitarian Law, as well as the referral of severe medical and protection cases.
"Catatumbo is cursed by its topography,” says Joanna Radziukiewicz, Country Manager, Norwegian Red Cross in Colombia. "The soil and climate are ideal for coca plantations, which – along with illegal exploitation of natural resources and minerals – fund armed groups,” she explains. "Another key feature is the narrow paths along the mountains, which provide strategic routes that are ideal for the trafficking of arms, drugs and people,” she adds.
"Before launching a health mission, we make sure to inform the community and all parties to the conflict about the planned visits, so as to guarantee safe access for our staff and beneficiaries,” says Julia*, a member of the Colombian Red Cross mobile health units. With a team of doctors, nurses, dentists, and psychologists, she delivers medicine and healthcare to vulnerable communities in 10 to 12-day rotations.
"When people get sick, it is impossible for them to go to the nearest health centre which is a 4-hour drive away, on very poor roads,” she explains. "That’s why we mobilize our teams to reach out to the most isolated communities, where needs are most acute,” she adds.
With a field presence in Colombia since 2011, Norwegian Red Cross Mobile Health Units were first supported by the European Commission in Colombia that year.
“These units not only provide healthcare, but also empower beneficiaries to mobilise public institutions and other actors to improve their living conditions and safety, by respecting their rights,” says Silvya. “Providing quality health assistance in rural, isolated areas also helps restore and strengthen the state's health institutions, so as to provide better long-term protection and services,” Julia concludes.