Colombia

In Mande, former Farc combatants help save lives

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  • Juan Ángel Cuesta, who graduated last year as a Rural Health Promoter and now helps save lives in the town of Mandé, in Urrao, Antioquia, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, malaria, and snake bites, among other illnesses.

  • Through WhatsApp, Juan Ángel shared his experience that is part of his reintegration process in a zone that can be reached by donkey, walking, or on a helicopter. Our verification moves forward in line with the Peace Agreement.

From the indigenous community of Santa Maria comes an urgent call for help, to the municipality capital of Mandé, in Urrao: “The girl is very ill, and we need help.” As it has happened in the past, Juan Ángel Cuesta packed up his things and followed the guides of this ethnic group and began a 5-hour journey to the reserve.

The emergency: a snake bit a 6-year old, and there is no doctor or nurse available in the area. Juan Ángel, a former FARC combatant, is the only help available, after graduating as a rural health promoter over a year ago, thanks to the program supported by the Governor’s Office of Antioquia, SENA, ARN, IMO, UNPD, the embassy of Sweden, and the UN Verification Mission in Colombia.

Mandé is a jungle region in Urrao, southern Antioquia, bordering with the Department of Chocó, northwestern Colombia. In a 35 degrees Celsius weather, and humidity most residents are of African descent and indigenous, many, victims of the armed conflict. To leave the zone, it is only possible walking, on a mule (at least a two-day journey) or helicopter. They are farming communities, seven afro descendent communities, and five indigenous communities.

Therefore, actions as those of Juan Angel are the lifesaver of many of the inhabitants, who are waiting for his arrival to help them. To take their temperature, to follow up the symptoms, and to arrange for a health brigade to arrive in the area, when the weather allows it.

Juan Ángel’s Journey

– Did the helicopter get here?

– It finally did. They took the child, and she is now getting treatment in Medellin, says Juan Ángel.

– What is your life like as a health promoter?

– When I was in the guerrilla, I dreamed of medicine. I did a little course in Nursing. Now that we have entered the peace process, we have negotiated with the government to standardize our knowledge, so we did it in Dabeiba, Antioquia. They already endorsed us as rural health promoters, and since then, I have been working and helping children, the most vulnerable people in the face of snake bites, and also in the face of this pandemic in COVID - 19.

– How did you arrive at the child’s location?

— I walked to the community. It is about 5 hours away from Mandé. It is an indigenous community that is part of the Majoré Amburá reserve. It is called Santa María, it is very far, unprotected, and we are providing support in preventive care.

It is a journey that is always long, and harsh but we are used to it, we stick to a pace, we know the way and all, but l must tell you that it is not easy to go there…You have to walk on Vásquez downwards, exit on Bocas de Mandé, and up on Bocas de Santa María. We were able to get the girl to the health post, and she was stable thank God but there isn’t a doctor or a nurse right now. The nurse is on leave, and it is very difficult for him to stay here for long...

– What does a health promoter do?

– We start with pedagogy, teaching people how to avoid diseases, protect themselves from mosquito bites, and snake bites. Also, on how to prevent this pandemic: handwashing and the use of face masks. But we don't have any implements. We practically have to buy the face masks when we go out to the village. There is no medicine either and any equipment, such as gloves, gauze, surgical materials that can help us to be able to attend any patient.

– Why do people trust your work?

– I was hired by the Municipality of Urrao as a health promoter, and people look for me because they trust how I do my work. My duties with the municipality include going from one home to the next and educate people.

“I have come to understand that the reality of life is not the war”

– How has leaving the weapons behind and becoming a rural health promoter now changed you?

– I am 32 with three kids. Coming from a past of war to this very moment, it has been a radical change, thank God, a change in everyday life, this is the path, the route to follow right now. I am very happy that I have come to understand that the reality of life is not war. It is about living among people and being of service to others. It is wonderful when your town feels supported by you, and you feel backed by your people, and we both stretch out our hands, and we know that we are there. I think that my greatest satisfaction with this job is to know that I am doing this with my community, with people that watched me, that saw me grow and people that wanted me to follow this path and leave all that behind…many people rely on this knowledge.

– Healthwise, what is the main concern?

– The illness that worries me the most, in this region, is malaria. Also snake bites. There have five in just one week. Also, flu, diarrhoea, malnutrition. Thank God that this pandemic has not hit here yet as we are a bit isolated, abandoned. The health post was recently built, but we lack equipment, supplies…We are nervous about serious diseases. Now many need care, pregnant women, for example. There is a food shortage and many children here.

– How can lives be saved in these circumstances?

– It is hard. A doctor for us in a region that is as far away as Mandé, and neighbouring communities, would be the solution to the many illnesses that we suffer here. Some fall sick, and it is not easy to leave their homes to go to the municipality capital to get tested, or it can be the elderly that cannot go. If there was no health promoter or the army nurse does not arrive, who knows what would have happened to that child. We thank the army that has been giving us important support with their helicopter for evacuations and medication.

An example of reconciliation

– Do you work jointly with the Army and individuals in reintegration to help the community?

– When we were in Dabeiba during the Rural Health Promoters course, we organized a meeting called Blue Tent every eight days, and everyone came together: army, police, former combatants, and community. We support each other to aid the community. They have helped us evacuating the sick, nursing, with medication…

– What is peace?

An opportunity. For example, peace is the reconciliation between two groups at war that agree, they establish a friendship, trust, and stop the war.

An opportunity

Former Farc-ep combatants arrive at Mandé in 2018 after living at the Vidrí Territorial Area tor Training and Reintegration in Vigía del Fuerte, which was closed by government decree.

Juan Ángel Cuesta, after 11 years in Farc, returned to Mandé to be reunited with his family. In his reintegration process, he completed the course for Rural Health Promoters. “Now, I ask for an opportunity. I want to study medicine to help others. My peers also want to work, they want to cultivate, and harvest to sell. Today I remember that during the war, I never thought peace would come, and I ask myself, what was I doing there? The truth is, I do not want to go back.”

In Mandé, the UN Verification Mission advances mandate efforts in line with the Peace Agreement.

Elizabeth Yarce
Public Information Officer
UN Verification Mission in Colombia - Regional Medellín