Cartagena: People have placed stepping stones down the fetid stream of raw sewage that marks a street between rows of houses, but in some places, the green liquid is too high and the stones are submerged. Nick has an open wound on his foot, so the community leader carries him for a few metres until the stones resume.
This swamp of human inhabitance is called Villa Hermosa – it translates as Beautiful Villa, but if there was ever an attractive mansion here, it’s long gone now. Many of these houses could barely be described as such. They are shelters of plastic bags and plywood, leaky tin roofs or plastic sheets, whose sanitary facilities amount to two flimsy plastic curtains in the swamp outside.
Children paddle and play in the stinking water that gives them dysentery and cholera and breeds the mosquitoes that lead to still more deaths here from malaria, yellow fever and dengue. Just one house has access to water and, in entrepreneurial fashion, the household supplies the rest of the 10,000-strong community for a fee.
It’s been described by public health officials as resembling a sub-Sahara African slum, but Villa Hermosa is a just a few kilometres from Colombia’s most popular tourist destination; it’s one of several shanty suburbs grasping at the silken skirts of Cartagena.
While the nation has prospered over the past decade with a drop in poverty and crime – homicides have fallen from 29,000 a year to 16,000 – Colombia continues to have one of the greatest disparities between rich and poor. In Cartagena, a city of 1 million people, more than 600,000 are poor and tens of thousands live in conditions of squalor, malnourished and without access to clean water and sanitation.
Many arrived over the past decade, fleeing the violence elsewhere in the country. They are farmers unable to farm, villagers who have escaped guerrilla groups like FARC and paramilitary horrors. Some have been born here.
We visit the village with Jaidith Tawil Dominguez, a woman with a generous smile who works for J. Gonzalez Foundation, one of the NGOs trying to help the children of Villa Hermosa. The charity has a nursery and centre for young children, and is creating a recreation park in a place where there are no facilities for kids.
The population here is made up of older people and young children. There are no teenagers but many orphans and women who have lost their husbands, brothers and sons to the violence. More than 70% of the population is displaced people and they cannot return because their former homes are still not secure.
Violence has followed them here. The neighbouring communities are all ruled by drug gangs and rife with prostitution. But without a school in Villa Hermosa, children as young as 6 have to walk through these dangerous neighbourhoods every day. Unless it rains, when the community is effectively sealed off.
The rains have been excessive this year, causing widespread flooding. It is an El Niño year, but Jaidith says the floods have been getting worse here over the past few years and blames climate change. There is no drainage in the slum settlement and the water mingles with the sewage and sits for weeks.
Freddie Uribe, the community leader, fled his village 10 years ago and has seen his brother and friends killed. He cannot return, and even if the violence ended, he wouldn’t. “What could I go back to?” he asks. “My house, if it’s still standing will be lived in by someone else. I have a wife and family here now. My life is here,” he says, wading through the swamp in gumboots. Freddie works as a carpenter now, doing business within the community.
There is hope. We saw a nursery school project started last year by the government, where 50 kids get free care from 9-4pm, including breakfast and lunch. And we found a similar one run with money from the UN world food programme. But they are just drops in the ocean of destitution.
After a few hours, we returned to the beautiful colonial city, back to the music and lights, the many restaurants and bars. And we slept in a stone-built house just 20 minutes away from Villa Hermosa.