Colombia

Displaced Colombian teacher graduates from classroom to guinea pig farm

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PASTO, Colombia, May 25 (UNHCR) - Claudia Martínez* has followed an unusual career path. The 50-year-old holds down two jobs - during the day, the mother of seven cleans parks and rivers in the south-west Colombian city of Pasto. But in her spare time Martinez tends cuyes; guinea pigs bred to be eaten at the cooperative for displaced people where she lives.

In an earlier life, she taught in a small town in Putumayo department, which is located south-east of Pasto's Narino department. The region bordering Ecuador was underdeveloped and volatile, but Martinez spent 23 happy years teaching the local children to read and write.

"I put forward several projects to the authorities and in 1991 they opened one primary school in the small town where I lived," she recalled. More than 800 children were educated at the school during her time there.

But her life changed dramatically early on the morning of August 21, 2001, when a terrified Martinez fled the town with her husband and children. For most of the preceding week she had lain awake at night fearful that she would be killed.

Her misfortune was that many of her pupils were from the countryside and she often had to travel to rural locations under the control of one of the irregular armed groups that operated in the area.

In 2001, a rival irregular armed group seized the area. The newcomers marked their first week in charge by killing one person a day. One day, Martinez heard she was next on the list. Her work visits to areas formerly under "enemy" control were enough reason to have her sentenced to death. She fled.

"We estimate that 350 teachers have been murdered [nationwide] in the past six years," said Bogota-based Jorge Ramirez of the National Teachers' Federation. "Another 500, at least, have been forced to flee over the same period."

Teachers are often killed because their education makes them stand out from the population. Many become civic leaders and this also makes them a target. And in some cases, like Martinez's, they are resented by groups because they have worked in areas controlled by rivals.

Targeting of teachers is becoming a matter of national concern because it is more and more difficult to find teachers willing to work in parts of the country where there is active conflict. Those who do take up posts in unstable areas often end up fleeing like Martinez.

"It is a vicious circle," said Julio Roberto Meier, UNHCR representative in Colombia. "Teachers are forced to displace because of the internal armed conflict, but the absence of a teacher makes the children even more vulnerable and perpetuates the cycle of underdevelopment and violence."

Like other displaced teachers, Martinez lost more than her home on the day she fled. She left behind an entire life and a profession she loved. Every department in Colombia runs its own education system and Martinez, who qualified in Putumayo, cannot teach in neighbouring Nariño.

"It's ironic," she said, "My preferred subject was citizen education. I used to teach children the constitution. Now, as a displaced person, I've spent years trying to get my constitutional rights respected."

Only a few weeks ago, Martinez received some unexpected good news: Nariño and Putumayo have reached an agreement on teachers' qualifications. She will again be able to work as a teacher, a dream she has clung to for the past six years.

"I never imagined my life would turn out this way, but I am thankful," she said. "It has made me value things I paid no attention to before and understand life a little better," she added, hoping the experience of displacement would make her an even better teacher.

* Name has been changed for protection reasons

By Gustavo Valdivieso in Pasto, Colombia