“If you want water, you better get it here because there’s not going to be any up there”, said Nieves from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
We were on our way to Soacha and were making a pitstop. The locality lies to the south or Bogotá and has in recent years become one of the main areas in the country where displaced people come to.
It’s an astonishing place, unfortunately for the wrong reasons. Like Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, Bogota’s mountains to the south are populated by its poorest. Many have come having been displaced either economically or by Colombia’s internal conflict.
The steep journey to the top where the UNHCR co-funds a school helping local children get a decent education is a bumpy dirt road. Houses built out of little more than scrap metal edge onto cliffs. Old people of clearly poor health trundle up the steep incline to reach their houses up the mountains.
A truck moving slowly traverses the area. It’s carrying water and only comes sporadically. A house on average only receives a tankful of water once every three weeks. If they can afford to pay for it. Even those who can have to make do with rain water for showering and cooking a lot of the time.
There’s several interesting subplots to Soacha’s location too. It lies directly to the south of Bogota, therefore an important entry point for drugs. Gangs have special interests in controlling the area, because it means they can control narcotics coming into the capital city and from where. With drug smuggling comes violence.
Another is that some surrounding mountains are and have been mined extensively. Most of the mountainous land south of Bogotá is owned privately meaning those who build houses are doing so illegally and under constant threat of eviction. The situation, though, is less acute than it once was As communities have become more entrenched, so have their rights.
We spent most of the day speaking to workers and mothers of the UNHCR school. 70% of the children come from displaced families. But you’d barely know of any difficult past experiences or the tough living conditions they face. Their smiles, energy and enthusiasm were the same as anywhere else in the world.
We were accompanied by a photographer and every time they had a chance to pose for a photo, their eyes lit up with joy before striking a favourite pose.
Being in the school and driven around gave a sense of protection while in Soacha. Another day I visited Santa Rosa, a neighbourhood also in the mountainous south populated by displaced people, where that sense of protection disappeared.
I travelled with a worker from Proyectar Sin Fronteras, an NGO which offers workshops and several community-based projects in the area.
One problem with poorer areas exposed to high levels of violence is that is creates a sense of mistrust even between neighbours who have no involvement with gangs.
Few people would talk. A woman who did, displaced to Bogotá in 1984, recounted how, two months previously, a young man was shot dead and left on the street just five doors down from her house.
I was exposed to no violence directly during my visit, but the threat bears down on you nevertheless.
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