Bogota. At four-thirty pm, our delegation chartered a bus in front of Hotel America and began to load our gear and supplies onboard. Our guide for the afternoon was Santiago Ortiz from CED-INS, a local organization that helped to provide educational and social services to many of the poorer neighborhoods in Bogota. We were going to Barrio Alfonso Lopez, an impoverished suburb on the outskirts of Bogota, in order to get a firsthand look at the conditions there. We also brought three large bags filled with toys as a gesture of goodwill and support to the people of Barrio Lopez.
Our hotel was located in downtown Bogota–a very clean, vibrant community. There is a lot of business. There is a lot of construction going on. Many of the skyscrapers are new and modern. The area looks very cosmopolitan–very fashionable. The shops and malls are nice and filled with products. Sharp, well-dressed business people rush up and down the sidewalks, conducting their daily affairs. Couriers and taxis race around. Buses crammed with passengers roar across the intersections, belching noxious clouds of diesel smoke, mixing with heavy gas fumes.
At first glance, downtown Bogota looks like the typical kind of affluent city that you would see in Europe or the U.S., but a closer look reveals a number of troubling signs–symptoms of a country in turmoil–a country in the midst of a long-running civil war that has claimed over 200,00 lives and displaced 2-3 million human beings. There is a lot of poverty. There is a heavy police presence in the city; there is a lot of homelessness. Sometimes these worlds collide. We saw a group of national police officers trying to wake a sleeping man on the sidewalk. When he pulled away from them, they began kicking and stomping on him. They struck him with gun butts. When the terrified man stood up and tried to flee, an officer grabbed him and nearly pulled his pants off. The man pulled his pants back up and tried to disappear into the crowd. The officers then began to stalk him.
There were a lot of beggars. On one occasion, a hungry child entered the restaurant and approached our table. The boy was quickly escorted out of the building by the owners. A few minutes later, a small girl came in and began begging from our table. She snatched a piece of chicken from the table and ran out the door. The anguish on the faces of some of the beggars was nearly unbearable to witness. The level of hunger was very disturbing. Colombia used to export large quantities of food. Now, Colombia imports nearly 6 million tons of food per year, unable to even provide for the needs of the population.
As our bus left the affluent section of Bogota and traveled West on Avenida de Jiminez into the more impoverished and overcrowded sections, the signs of war became more apparent. Young, heavily-armed army soldiers and National Police officers with M-16s stood on street corners and in front of banks. Anti-government graffiti covered the walls. We began to see military checkpoints and black, armored carriers of the National Police prowled through the corridors and alleyways.
There were increasing signs of economic malaise–boarded-up and abandoned buildings, burned-out stores. The local economy seemed to have come to a complete halt. We passed a large lot that had been turned into a refuse dumping ground. Scores of people–they appeared as dark figures in the distance–sifted through the trash, hunched over, and kneeling down. They picked up garbage.
Our guide, Santiago, stood up in the bus and began to explain the situation to us through a translator: “There are at least 350,000 people in this area,” he said. “Many of the people–the refugees–are in hiding. They are targets of the military. There is a lot of homelessness in Colombia. There are thousands of poor children here.”
Colombia has the second highest infant mortality rate in the Western hemisphere.
“The major problem is a lack of access to medical care,” Santiago pointed out. “The environment is very polluted. The air is contaminated.”
He talked about the education crisis. “There is a shortage of schools in the area,” he said. “The entire educational system has been overwhelmed by the massive import of refugees into the Bogota region–as many as 2 * million refugees. To worsen the situation, many children have to work to help support their families. 47% of the population does not formally work.” Santiago looked out the window. “This the real face of Colombia.”
We began to climb a steep grade and the bus engine started to sputter. We had run out of diesel. We waited for about an hour while the driver made arrangements to get more fuel. The sun began to go down.
Santiago continued: “There are no government-funded social services in this region.”
Since there are no public services, the local communities in Zone One know that the only way to overcome the numerous hardships is by working together. The communities work together with the assistance of various organizations like CED-INS or the Catholic Church to provide their own basic services. An example of this cooperation is the water pipeline that was completed seven days ago. Water is brought down the side of the mountain into the community. Families help each other build homes and provide other services, like child-care and home-schooling. CED-INS provides food and other relief for newly arrived refugees. They have local elections. In essence, its self-governance and the effect is that, despite the staggering poverty and hardship, the communities are very close and family ties are very strong. The Catholic Church plays an important role in the community.
As darkness fell, we noticed that many of the homes had a single line of lit candles placed in the front yard. It was to commemorate December 8th, “The Day of the Immaculate Conception.” It was obvious that the people in this region took a lot of pride in their communities and what they had achieved here.
The bus came to a stop at the bottom of a hill. We had reached our prearranged destination. The original plan had been for the delegation to deliver three large duffel-bags filled with toys to the local community leaders, but there had been a communications problem. As we walked through the community, we began to see children standing in the doorways of their modest, concrete homes with their mothers standing behind them. Lights began to come on in some of the homes and people came out on the patios and verandas to see what was going on. Many of the children were bundled up because of the cool weather. There was a brief meeting with the local community leaders. The duffel bags were then hauled from the bus and dragged up the hillside. The bag was opened and the toys were passed out. The children were incredibly polite and well-mannered. The toys were wrapped in Christmas paper. Each child took one toy. Bread was also passed out to the growing crowd. It was a joyous and festive occasion. After the toys were passed out, the children would run back to their mothers to show them the package. A group of nearby residents lit some sparklers and started running around, waving them in the air. Everything went fine, except at one point, a little boy ended up with a package marked “nina” and started crying. The situation was quickly remedied with another package marked “nino.” There was also some concern that there wouldn’t be enough presents and a single small girl would have to go without, but one of the delegates ran down the hillside and came back up with the last present–nobody went without.
We stood around and talked with the residents. Some of them were sipping homemade beer. A couple of the delegates smoked and exchanged cigarettes with them. I thought about how impoverished these people were and yet they were filled with such joy. Their families were so close. They had nothing and yet they had welcomed us with opened arms. I savored the moment.
After a few minutes, we headed back down the hill and Joe Yusakis summed everything up, “It seems to me, there’s a real sense of community around here,” he said, quietly.
I nodded in agreement, and then looked up the hill. It was a nice feeling.
We had left behind a lot of happy children up there.
MICHAEL WOLFF can be reached at: email@example.com