Colombia: UN starts social project to stem spate of indigenous suicides

2 July 2004

As rising numbers of young indigenous people from northwestern Colombia commit suicide, losing the will to live because of the country’s long-running civil war, the United Nations refugee agency has begun a social project with local spiritual leaders to try to halt the phenomenon.

The spiritual leaders will visit communities to assess the causes of the spate of suicides and offer psycho-social counselling to young people and their families, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told reporters today at a briefing in Geneva.

The project – which targets 10 indigenous communities in the region – will include cultural activities to promote indigenous identity and traditional values. Teachers are also being trained to identify the needs of displaced children and help them.

Thousands of indigenous people have recently been displaced from their homes because of the conflict in Colombia, and some indigenous leaders have either been murdered or have disappeared.

In little more than a year, 17 people from two indigenous communities in the northwest – all aged between 12 and 24 – have committed suicide or made an attempt.

The displacement has eroded the communities’ traditional social and political patterns, lowering self-esteem and increasing feelings of frustration, especially among the young, Ms. Pagonis said.

Indigenous organizations say that all of Colombia’s more than 80 indigenous groups are now at risk because of the conflict. Elders are particularly concerned that indigenous youth are vulnerable to recruitment by the country’s irregular armed groups.

Meanwhile, five indigenous Embera communities who fled their ancestral lands in March because of fighting in the area between the Colombian army and rebel groups have decided to return home.

More than 1,200 people agreed to make the return journey despite the continuing security problems in the area, Ms. Pagonis said, adding that UNHCR will assist them with the return.


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