Colombia's displaced trickle home
Only Sudan has more internal refugees. But government aid and better security are helping Colombians reclaim their land.
"I missed the water," recalls one farmer shyly. "I missed the avocados," says another. "I missed the silences," admits a third. The little group sits quietly in the shade and looks out at the fields they had to leave behind when the rebels came. It's been a long journey back home.Skip to next paragraph
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There are an estimated 3 million internally displaced people in Colombia today: more than anywhere else in the world save Sudan.
Fleeing a relentless civil war that has killed tens of thousands, these so-called desplazados stream out of the countryside and crowd into urban slums – looking for jobs they are ill prepared to fill, leaning on relatives unequipped to help.
Last year, an average of 850 people fled their communities every day in this nation of 44 million, according to CODHES, a Colombian watchdog group that tracks desplazados.
But the trickle of those desplazados who do return home and successfully rebuild their lives – here in Diamante, 290 miles northwest of Bogotá, and in small villages and towns elsewhere around the country – is a whiff of what the government hopes a more peaceful future will bring.
In the past three years, with President Alvaro Uribe's dedication to both strengthening the military and entering into peace negotiations with all sides to the conflict, security in parts of the country is improving. This, together with a vast government assistance program that has rebuilt 7,000 houses in 150 villages, has allowed half a million desplazados to go home, says Luis Alfonso Hoyos Aristizábal, director of Acción Social, the lead government agency responsible for the displaced. "Is the situation grave? Yes. Have we fixed it? No," he says. "But we have some results."
The rebels and militias had battled for years in this disputed state of Cordoba, a region of rich farmland and a key corridor for illegal arms trafficking and the growing of coca, the leaf used to make cocaine. But Diamante, somehow, had been spared – until 10 a.m. on Dec. 28, 1998.
Two of Adriano Condes Casa's grandchildren were visiting for the holidays. When the shooting started, he grabbed their hands and ran toward the caves up the mountain. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas who attacked that morning – suspecting the villagers of assisting rival paramilitaries – razed Diamante to the ground, leaving behind more than a dozen burned and dismembered bodies.
Mr. Condes fled without a change of clothes, without his wife's cooking pots, without the hens or the cow. He was so confused, he says, he didn't even take the framed photo of his parents, though it was his only one. He arrived in the nearby town of Tierra Alta a few days later, on his 70th birthday, and tried to begin anew.
"I could not make a peso to even get on the bus. I could have tried to learn to be a carpenter's helper, but that was not in my soul," says Condes, whose father founded Diamante in 1959, settling there with his wife and 17 children. "I was shamed because the fields my father passed on to me were abandoned," says Condes, who spent six months there living off government subsidies and help from family. "I hated buying yucca or plantains at a market."
Pining for his old life, Condes, together with his older brother, Francisco Javier "Pacho" Condes Casa, returned to Diamante six months after their displacement. The land was in shambles. The fields were overgrown; the houses, school, and store were all destroyed; and the road had washed away, making it a three-hour donkey ride away from the nearest villages. "Few wanted to return at first," says Pacho, whose own sons preferred to stay in Tierra Alta. "Many had bad memories and remaining fears ... and to start from zero is not easy."