Fire destroys 80 homes near BIC church plant in Colombia, indicates mounting violence

—In the early morning hours of Saturday, June 5, a fire broke out in Medellín, Colombia, consuming a large neighborhood on the edge of the city known as La Divisa.

Arson is the suspected cause of the the fire that ravaged La Divisa, the neighborhood in Medellín, Colombia in which a BIC church was recently planted.

“It was horrible and very sad to be awakened at 2 a.m., by the sound of exploding gas tanks and the shouts of people calling for help and trying to save their families and belongings,” says a leader of the BIC church plant in La Divisa who witnessed the event.

Initial counts indicate that 80 homes were destroyed by the blaze. While investigations into the cause of the fire continue, some Medellín community members are suggesting that it may have been started intentionally and is part of a larger trend of increasing violence the city has seen since October 2009.

“Unfortunately, this part of the city has been plagued by serious violence,” reports Trevor Main, a BIC missionary in Colombia. “Armed gangs are vying for control of the sector, and the group that currently has control requires many members of the community—business owners and bus drivers—to pay ‘vaccines’ on a daily or weekly basis. These bribes are paid so that the ruling group won’t rob them or harm their families.”

Countering country-wide conflict
Of the 80 homes decimated by the fire in La Divisa, 39 belonged to families that had fled there from other parts of the country because of armed conflict generated by paramilitary groups, government forces, guerrillas, and drug cartels in those areas. Although the center of these clashes has been in Córdoba, a city in the northern corner of Colombia, the volatility has spilled over into other areas of the country, including Medellín nearly 200 miles south, in recent months.

A woman searches through the rubble, hopeful to find something from her former home that she can salvage.

In response to this increased threat, the BIC churches in Medellín have created programs to reach out to local youth facing pressure from area gangs. In 2009, it established an after-school soccer program for young athletes and a children’s club called “Navigators.”

Yet danger continues to threaten the Medellín community. In a recent email to Main, one church leader shared, “We are worried about the neighbourhood. The situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better.”

Four weeks before the fire, this same church leader found the lifeless body of a young lady in front of her home. The young woman, who had recently begun attending church activities at La Divisa BIC, had been murdered.

In the wake of the fire, the BIC church plant in La Divisa has worked with its “mother church,” Giradot BIC (Medellín), and Tierra Linda BIC (Bogotá) to care for the families left homeless.

And just two weeks ago, on a trip to Medellín, Main was advised by local church leaders not to visit La Divisa, sensing that the tension in the community had escalated to an unsafe degree.

A call to respond
In the wake of the recent fire, the Girardot BIC Church, located in another part of the city of Medellín, has been working to find ways to serve the families that have been left homeless and to support its daughter church in La Divisa. Additionally, the congregation at Tierra Linda BIC, which lies in Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá, has sent about 180 cans of turkey meat provided by Mennonite Central Committee to be shared with the families affected by the tragedy.

Main invites Brethren in Christ in North America to join the BIC Church in Colombia in prayer for the people of La Divisa as they grieve over this immediate crisis, as well as for the country of Colombia as a whole in its search for peace in the face of hostility and warring factions.