01 April 2004

Colombia is a nation that has known bloody civil wars and where, since 1965, guerrillas have ruled part of the country, intimidating the other part by extortion, kidnapping, murder and sabotage.

It’s not only the altitude of 2,700 metres which takes your breath away when you arrive at Bogotá airport. The sight of this city of seven million inhabitants is impressive, as it sprawls out onto the savanna in three directions and is held in line by mountains in the other.

Although Colombia’s capital is near the equator, its altitude gives it the mild average temperature of April in England. The climate of the rest of this huge mountainous country (twice the size of France) varies from subtropical to tropical. It borders on Panama, and is the only South American state with coasts on both the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean.

WARMTH AND WAR The welcome one gets from friends could not be warmer. The way they offer to take you wherever you want to go, by car or on foot, is typical—even if, as an individualistic European, you would sometimes rather go by yourself!

People are very courteous. When you approach a bank clerk, for instance, you cannot simply blurt out your problem or question. First you must ask how they are today and how they have been. And be sure never to pass a phone call straight to the person who is being called—first have a nice conversation with whoever is on the other end.

And yet... this is a nation that has known bloody civil wars and where, since 1965, guerrillas have ruled part of the country, intimidating the other part by extortion, kidnapping, murder and sabotage. In response to this, and the army’s failure to protect its citizens, local defence forces (known as paras) have sprung up.

Both the paras and the guerrillas, who started out of a desire to bring social justice, have strayed far from their original purpose. They are now locked into a fight for power, with arms bought with money raised by the drugs trade and extortion. Villagers who have been exposed to unimaginable cruelty from both sides have fled in their millions to the cities.

The previous government’s attempt to negotiate with the guerrillas led to interesting televised debates but to no ceasefire whatsoever. After this, the nation overwhelmingly elected Alvaro Uribe, who has set out, with US help, to defeat the guerrillas by military means (and by trying to negotiate a ceasefire with the paras).

In Uribe’s 17 months of government, guerrilla activity has dropped dramatically. For the first time in years people can safely drive by car from one city to another.

This tough approach has also led to excesses, and accusations of human rights violations have been rife. But, as the daily newspaper El Tiempo asked: ‘What about the human rights of 40 million Colombians, who have been terrorized by armed groups which do not show the least respect for the lives or possessions of the population?’

Every Saturday at 6.30 am, Uribe flies out to some remote part of the country, accompanied by the relevant minister or civil servants, to listen to the people and find out how to address the blocks to local progress.

One feature of life in Bogotá is pico y placa, (‘rush hour and number plate’). The final figures on your number plate decide which two days of the week you are not allowed to drive between 7 and 9am or 5 and 7pm. Fines are high, so this restriction has to be factored into social engagements. Taxis (inexpensive) and buses do good business.

In January, 40 people, half of them under 25, took part in a weekend course run by Foundations for Freedom in a lovely retreat centre in the mountains outside Bogotá. Many more wanted to take part. The course helps people identify the changes needed in the world and the way these relate to their own lives. The love people feel for their country makes them open to new truths about themselves and proves a solid ground for hope for a peaceful future.