Clinic Inauguration Ushers in a New Day
by Linda Unger*
June 2, 2011—The day the Clinton Rabb Health Post opened its doors in tiny Brisas del Mar, near the Colombian coast, the people partied. They gathered and prayed and danced and laughed in the sweltering heat—and you never would have guessed they were coming out of a long, dark, violent night.
From that day, March 27, to this, the clinic has been in constant operation, its one staff physician seeing 25 people a day, seven days a week, including holidays. The people of Brisas del Mar and five neighboring villages finally have health care within reach—and that’s worth celebrating.
Support from the health division of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) for the construction, equipment, and the administration of the clinic for three years marks an inauguration of another kind as well. It is UMCOR Health’s first Hospital Revitalization program in Latin America.
Additional support comes from the General Board of Global Ministries’ Mission and Evangelism program area, which has long been on board with the project. It allocated resources granted by the Emma G. Harris – Edith I. Gale Fund for expenses related to the construction of the clinic and a simple residence for the staff doctor.
The decision to help the Colombian Methodist Church (Iglesia Colombiana Metodista, ICM) bring health care to these remote villages was clear. In the words of ICM Bishop Juan Alberto Cardona, the people of the area lived in “absolute poverty and desperation—they had no desire to go on living—and they were imprisoned because of the paramilitary forces in the whole area.”
When UMCOR head, the Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey addressed the gathering in the course of the day, it was clear, she said, that the clinic’s opening would be a turning point, “the beginning of a long and fruitful journey.”
Green plastic sheets suspended on poles provided shade to most of the 1,000 villagers from the six coastal communities who participated in the liturgy to mark the clinic’s opening. Young men huddled in the silhouettes of trees; families pulled up wooden chairs to the open doors of their humble homes on the periphery of a dusty square.
A group of young girls in pink and gold-colored cumbia dresses and wearing broad smiles and confidence ushered in the liturgy and performed their traditional dance before the greetings, readings, preaching, and speeches, and before a popular local artist belted out his own brand of gospel music.
Though the service was long, no one left; those under the tarps simply slid their plastic chairs along the sandy ground to keep pace with the sun while it shimmied across the sky. The occasional popping of purple balloons that decorated the speakers’ platform punctuated their readings, remarks, and songs.
Bishop Cardona greeted as many villagers as he could before ascending the platform and joining Harvey; Una Jones, head of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM); the Rev. Edgar Avitia, Global Ministries executive for Mission and Evangelism; and Patricia Magyar, representing UMCOR Health.
Local ICM pastor, the Rev. Miguel Ávila, also shared the platform as did representatives from the mayor’s office and the hospital in the town of San Onofre. The hospital, some 14 miles away, had been, until the clinic’s opening, the villagers’ only option for emergency and routine health care.
Also present was Robert Rabb, brother to the late Rev. Clinton Rabb, for whom the clinic is named. Clinton, former head of Mission Volunteers, was an early and ardent supporter of building the health post. He died before it was completed, from injuries he sustained during the earthquake in Haiti; some of his ashes are buried in the village.
Robert has served tirelessly, at his brother’s invitation, as ICM’s Volunteers-in-Mission director and led the construction of the health post, with volunteers from the six villages providing most of the labor and international volunteers collaborating to provide the rest.
Health Care in Brisas del Mar
Hours before the celebratory ribbon was cut and Rev. Harvey looked on as Robert Rabb slipped a key into the front door of the clinic in a commemorative act, patients were already being attended. Dr. Sneider Romo Miranda, staff physician, oversaw a bevy of medical personnel, most of them helping out for the day. The lineup of patients had begun at 7:00 a.m.
Dani Luz Ramos, from the village of Plan Parejo, was among the first in line. A few months into her pregnancy, she was waiting to get a sonogram. “Even though I have four children, I’ve never had a sonogram before,” she said. “You had to go to San Onofre for it, so no; I’ve never had one.”
Later, when she held the x-ray printout in her hand and admired the image of her as yet unborn daughter, she said, “It’s like a miracle.”
Ramos was one of 200 patients seen that day by doctors, dentists, and lab technicians. The clinic’s regular staff is, so far, composed of Romo, a part-time dentist, a part-time lab technician, and an office assistant.
Although the clinic has two exam rooms, a recovery room, dental office, laboratory, pharmacy, and reception area, so many people had signed up for services that some had to be seen in the village school.
The most common ailments were diarrhea, malnutrition, pneumonia, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and bronchitis. “There is also a lot of unresolved resentment that spills over into confrontation,” Dr. Romo said, a product of years of repression and violence that only came to something like a close in the area in 2004.
Outside, amid the festivities, John Jairo Higuita Suárez, head of construction for ICM, observed the celebration with admiration. “Now that I see this health post is a reality,” he said, “my heart is overwhelmed and, well, you can see my tears. God has made this wonderful thing; thanks be to God!
“The community benefits,” Higuito went on. “Not only will they have a health center but the vision of a new life—of life lived in a new way…. The paramilitaries used to intimidate them, but if they were to come now and try it, they would find the people are not the same as they used to be.”
A History of Violence
At the end of the 1980s, Colombian guerrillas controlled much of the area and conducted fund-raising activities by kidnapping wealthy landowners and holding them for ransom, explained the Rev. José Duque, a professor, ICM pastor, and Global Ministries missionary. The landowners retaliated, he continued, creating paramilitary groups ostensibly to protect themselves and their lands. But they gave the paramilitaries free reign.
These groups began to associate with each another and acted with impunity against anyone they suspected of being a guerrilla or against whom they held a grudge of any sort.
They came to see the dirt-and-gravel roads to the sea as ideal for drug trafficking and took forcible control of the area, reportedly snatching up young men to fight for them and kidnapping, raping, and killing young women.
“What we have seen here, no one should ever see,” said a Brisas del Mar villager named Alejandro. “The day I came from my work in the fields and didn’t pass three or four cadavers was a miracle.”
He and others said two paramilitary commanders called El Oso (The Bear) and Rodrigo Cadena, respectively, ruled the area with an iron fist, establishing checkpoints, demanding crops and other payment, and killing or “disappearing” villagers young and old, male and female, even pregnant women.
Over and over Alejandro said, “These things happened right here,” as if still trying to convince himself that such horrors were possible in the place where he has lived all of his 73 years.
Rebeca, another resident, spoke of how she had worked as a housekeeper for 30 years in neighboring Venezuela, saving her earnings to eventually buy a locale in San Onofre and rent it out to support herself when she grew old.
She followed through with her plan, only to see the locale blown up within three years of acquiring it, because of a dispute between two paramilitaries, one of whom was her renter. Her son William, then 26, died from injuries he suffered in the explosion.
César, another villager, reported how he had accompanied an alternative candidate for mayor on house visits in 2000. While on their rounds, he and the candidate were shot at, and César was wounded. Nevertheless, no record of his injuries can be found in the hospital in San Onofre, he said.
When he complained to the police, they told him his name had appeared on a “death list” and that he should run. César found a safe place for his family, abandoned his small business, and took off. The events traumatized his children, he said. One of his daughters, now grown, still phones him three times a day to make sure he is alright.
Since about 2005, the Colombian government has carried out exhumations in the area in an effort to identify the remains of the slaughtered and offer closure to the surviving family members.
According to the National Commission on Restitution and Reconciliation, 42 of 44 mass graves found in all of Sucre province between 2006 and 2007 were in the municipality of San Onofre, where the villages served by the new clinic are found.
A New Dawn
Bishop Cardona understands the deep significance of the Clinton Rabb Health Post for the 3,000 villagers it serves. “I believe this is the work of the Holy Spirit,” he said when the festivities were over. “It is not only about the clinic: We are about transforming the lives of the people in these communities.
“There is a great sense of ownership of the clinic. This is important because the people have worked on procuring answers to their own needs,” he continued. “Global Ministries, through UMCOR, is supporting us, and our work is bearing fruit.”
That was evident in the lively celebration of the clinic’s opening. The festive liturgy, the enthusiastic turnout, and the elegant performance by the young girls in traditional costume, confidently dancing into a new day, were visible signs of the communities’ will for “life, and life in abundance.”
*Linda Unger is staff editor and senior writer for UMCOR.