Darién, the largest province in Panama, lies on the Colombian border. It is home to three of Panama’s major indigenous groups, a sizeable Afro-Caribbean community and a large number of Colombian refugees. The southern region, commonly referred to as the Darién Gap, is a vast area of lush forests nourished by plentiful rainfalls and is impenetrable by road or rail networks. It is untouched by mass tourism and frequented by Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries. Clashes between these two groups have created a dangerous and unpredictable environment in the province.
The town of Boca de Cupe, which lies in the province, is home to about 2,000 inhabitants, 30 per cent of whom are displaced Colombians. The January 2003 assassination by Colombian paramilitaries of four indigenous tribal elders in two neighbouring towns brought, according to reports from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, some 500 indigenous Panamanians – more than 300 of them children – to the small to seek refuge and protection.
Boca de Cupe is protected by a small Panamanian police force, has one telephone, relies on a single doctor and is miles away from any big city. Still, its residents took in their frightened neighbours until it was safe for them to return to their homes. Support for the displaced villagers poured into Boca de Cupe in the form of food, clothing and shelter. But as the aid dwindled and the relief workers left, the sense of trauma among the displaced children lingered.
“In this type of situation, people do not ever think about the psychosocial effects of conflict on children,” says Ana Lorena Alfaro, UNICEF’s project assistant in Darién. “Helping children overcome the emotional impact of conflict is just as necessary as any other form of aid because it contributes towards the mental and emotional development of children living amidst violence and insecurity.”
The psychological recovery of children and adolescents living in conflict zones is an essential building block for peace. UNICEF therefore decided to focus on Boca de Cupe to implement Retorno de la Alegria (Return to Happiness), a project that would benefit both the indigenous residents and the displaced Colombians in Darién.
The project began in November 2002, with training of teachers from the area, followed by training of adolescents from smaller towns surrounding Boca de Cupe. The lessons are currently taught by adolescent and use games, drawing, singing and role playing to promote to promote mental health recovery for children. Ms. Alfaro explains that, before the start of the project, children from the area were showing signs of negative behaviour such as depression, bed-wetting, aggressiveness, fear, nightmares, mistrust and lack of self esteem. The project was designed to teach children peaceful ways to deal with their problems and help restore trust and a sense of security in those who have been raised in a climate of fear and death.
“When the project first began there was no real place for children to play so a few would gather near the church to sing and play games but many would stand outside and just watch,” says Alfaro. “I remember thinking that it’s not normal that children do not want to play. That is when you know that something is wrong.”
The project has now successfully been replicated in eight different communities in Darién, with many adolescents participating. There are now over 120 adolescents helping approximately 5,000 children to create a more peaceful society in the province. Ms. Alfaro explains that the problem now is not a lack of participation but getting the children to go home after the sessions are over. “They all want to stay and play,” she said.
“Some displaced children from Colombia come to this region and initially talk of going back to Colombia to fight,” says Ms. Alfaro. “Return to Happiness presents them with new options for their future, some are now saying, “I want to be a teacher or a lawyer or a missionary’. They start to think more about peace and less about violence because they realize that war and bloodshed are no longer their only option.”
Jesus Ariel Graciano, a 15-year-old from Colombia, made the long journey over the mountains from Colombia to Boca de Cupe on foot with his family when he was seven years old. He is now one of the adolescent supervisors working with the project. He says, “I have lived through the same thing that these children are going through. I spent half of my life in war, and I don’t want to live that way anymore. I want to be someone who helps others.”