Saturday, February 12, 2011

Colombia: Psychological support to the families of former captives

Source: International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

In Colombia, the ICRC, with the logistical support of the government of Brazil, is facilitating the release of five people whom the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) are handing over to the former Colombian senator Piedad Córdoba. Michael Kramer, the deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Colombia, who is taking part in these humanitarian operations, talks about the ICRC's role in releases, the form they take and about the psychological support which the organization offers the families of former captives.

Why does the ICRC take part in these release operations?

With the prior consent of the parties, the ICRC takes part in releases because they are part of its humanitarian activities in Colombia to assist victims of the armed conflict. In addition to providing logistical support, we take care of the human aspect of releases. Spending months or even years in the jungle without any social or emotional contact is a traumatic experience for any human being and it marks them for life. That is why we try to provide all-round psychological support for both the released person and his or her family. While release is a huge relief for everyone, it also has a deep emotional impact.

How is the human aspect approached in the first meeting with released persons?

When we receive them, we talk to them for a while at the place of the handover in order to prepare them for a return to their usual environment. The first person to be released was Marcos Baquero, a municipal councillor, who was freed on Wednesday, 9 February. We are waiting until the ICRC doctor has examined him and has talked to him about his captivity, his family and his expectations. What is striking is the feeling of time loss experienced by people who have been in the hands of an armed group, not to mention the psychological after-effects and the exhaustion caused by captivity

What form does the psychological support of families take?

We have come to realize that preparing a former captive's family for his or her release is a vital element of the psychological support given that person. Ever since December 2010, when the FARC announced the releases which would take place this week, a psychologist has been visiting the families in order to prepare them for this meeting. She has discussed with the closest relatives of the persons about to be released various aspects of captivity and the changes that it would bring in family life. This support has been a great comfort for all the families.

Is this the first time that you have participated in a release as an ICRC delegate?

Release operations are part of the ICRC's usual activities, not only in Colombia, but in other parts of the world where there are armed conflicts. During my first tour of duty in Colombia from 2002 to 2003, I took part in various handovers of civilians by armed groups in the north of the country. When I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2009 and 2010 I also participated in humanitarian missions related to the handover of various soldiers who were being held by an armed group. The ICRC is also involved in this kind of operation in countries such as Afghanistan, Niger, Mali, Sudan or Chad.

By the end of this week, five people will have been released in different regions of Colombia. What does a release operation involve? What steps are taken?

In the case of the persons released this week, we are using helicopters provided by the Brazilian government. Weather conditions permitting, we leave in the morning of the appointed day. On the spot, we establish a dialogue with the group handing over the person and we tell them of our concerns about the serious humanitarian repercussions of the armed conflict on the civilian population, or we leave them with our written comments to this effect. Then we hand over the Red Cross messages sent by the families of persons who are still in the hands of armed groups, so that they can maintain contact with them. Then we go to the airport which has been designated for the operation, where the released person meets his or her family and is given any requisite specialist medical care.

How important is the logistical support of the Brazilian government?

The government of Brazil is an important ally when conducting these operations. Its logistical support is vital. In addition to the Brazilian army's two Cougar helicopters, we can rely on 22 crew members who have agreed to take part in the humanitarian mission and who guarantee flight safety.