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Colombian town emerges from bloody past, but healing trauma proves elusive

This article, by Anastasia Moloney, is republished with the kind permission of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Exodus: By 2004, 80% of San Carlos’ population had fled their homes to escape the raging war.

Along the main square in this town, men chat over beer and billiards to the sound of blaring “Vallenato” folk music. Churchgoers attend afternoon mass and schoolchildren enjoy ice cream in the shade of palm trees.

In the surrounding verdant rolling hills, cattle graze and coffee is being harvested for the first time in years.

Such scenes were unthinkable a decade ago when right-wing paramilitaries ruled this farming town in Colombia’s northwestern Antioquia province, torturing and killing those branded as sympathisers with the leftist guerrillas, locals say.

The unrelenting violence prompted an exodus, and by 2004, 80 percent of San Carlos’ 25,000 inhabitants had fled their homes.

“San Carlos used to be a ghost town,” said Fanny Socorro, a 61-year-old subsistence farmer, who was displaced. “You’d see people in camouflage uniforms suddenly arrive at your neighour’s house. You didn’t know who was who and what side people were on. You couldn’t trust anyone.”

Colombia’s conflict continues in its southern provinces and jungle border areas, and drug traffickers still impose violent control over certain regions, but in San Carlos the fighting is largely over.

A government military offensive has pushed rebels into more remote hideouts, and a controversial 2003 peace deal with paramilitary chiefs led to more than 30,000 fighters handing in their weapons.

Once a symbol of the human toll of Colombia’s war, San Carlos is today known for its success in rebuilding its broken community as it emerges from its bloody past.

Over the past seven years, more than 20,000 people have returned to San Carlos, marking the biggest homecoming of internal refugees to any town in Colombia.

“There’s peace here now. We’re getting back to our normal lives. San Carlos has transformed in a short space of time. I’m so happy to return to my farm, my cows,” said Socorro, sitting on a park bench.

The homecoming is part of a government policy to encourage hundreds of thousands of families displaced by the country’s 50-year war to return to their homes.

The effort is unfolding amid ongoing peace talks between the government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The rebuilding in San Carlos could serve as an example to other war-torn rural communities inColombia.

Under legislation passed by the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, victims and families of those who have died in the violence can seek justice and up to $12,000 in compensation for relatives murdered, families displaced, land stolen and landmine victims.

Hundreds of residents in San Carlos, including farmer Peregrino Giraldo, are among the first to reap the benefits of the historic law.

Driven from home in 2002 by the violence, he spent four years scraping a living as a street seller in Colombia’s second city, Medellin, a four-hour drive away.

“It was a disaster when I came back in 2006. My house was infested with weeds and beetles. It took two years for my sugar cane to grow again. It’s starting from zero. But I love my land and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” said Giraldo, who plans to spend his $3,650 compensation to clear debt, buy cows and start a fish farm.

Rebuilding without fear

Few appear more determined to turn things around than Maria Giraldo, the town’s first female mayor (who is not related to Peregrino Giraldo). “We left our farm to save our lives,” said Mayor Giraldo, who fled after two relatives were killed by paramilitaries, and returned seven years ago.

“It takes real strength and resilience to come back when home is the source of tragedy and pain. But now there’s hope. People want to move on with their lives, to farm again, to live next to their neighbour without fear.”

With the clearance of about 500 landmines and unexploded ordnance – planted mostly by FARC rebels to repel government troops – the government last year declared San Carlos the country’s first mine-free municipality.

San Carlos has been an ideal place to focus rebuilding efforts, says Mayor Giraldo.

“The difference between San Carlos and other areas where mass displacement occurred is that armed groups in this region didn’t steal much land. Instead people abandoned their homes. This means it’s easier for people to rebuild because their land isn’t in dispute.”

Yet land disputes, tenuous government control in rebel strongholds, along with drug trafficking mean other parts of the country remain unsafe for the return of displaced families.

“The government is obliged to guarantee that there’s security and the minimum conditions needed for people wanting to return home, such as roads, electricity, healthcare and schools,” said Paula Gaviria, who heads the government’s victims’ unit that aims to compensate 5.6 million war victims.

Healing war trauma

The guns have been silenced and the landmines cleared, but the biggest obstacle to San Carlos’ recovery is mental trauma, which is often invisible. Human rights abuses perpetrated by guerrillas, paramilitaries and government forces have left generations of Colombians traumatised.

Along the partly unpaved road leading to San Carlos, several statues of the Virgin Mary mark spots where paramilitaries shot alleged guerrilla collaborators.

“Paramilitaries had blacklists. At roadblocks they’d stop buses and read from a blacklist, naming who could stay on the bus and who had to leave. Those ordered to get off the bus were often shot,” said Mayor Giraldo.

While a new tourist booth in the town square advertises nature walks, government forensic teams are digging for mass graves in the surrounding countryside.

For local resident Pastora Mira, searching for the missing has become her life’s mission.

“I lost my daughter Sandra who was kidnapped by the paramilitaries and then disappeared. Then my son, who had just turned 18, was also killed by them,” Mira said.

The 57-year-old spent eight years looking for her missing daughter, begging paramilitary commanders to reveal where she was buried.

“I channel my pain and anger into helping others look for their missing relatives. I found eight bodies before I finally found my daughter’s body in a mass grave near a river bank in 2008.”

There are more than 300 people reported missing in San Carlos alone.

“Finding my daughter finally allowed me to heal the pain a bit. But when a parent can’t find their missing child, they can’t get closure,” Mira said. “The grief and uncertainty is like a cancerous tumor that consumes the body and sucks the life out of people.”

“House of horrors”

The community is also healing by reinventing places once known for being epicentres of violence, such as a former brick hotel near the main square that paramilitaries used to torture, rape and kill their enemies.

When it reopened in 2005 as a community centre, a priest performed an exorcism.

“At first people were too scared to walk through the door. To encourage people to come in, we offered snacks and drinks right at the end of the house,” said Fanny Lopez, who helps run the centre.

“We wanted to transform what people called the house of horrors into a symbol of hope. During workshops and art therapy, people realise that they’re not alone and not the only ones suffering.”

She says the blood-stained walls have been washed. Drawings by children and others who experienced violence now hang on the walls.

“I still get a bad vibe when walking into one patio area of this house where the paramilitaries would let people bleed to death after torturing them. And there’s the garden,” said Lopez, pointing to a corner in the garden where the body of a 15-year-old girl was exhumed three years ago.

Back in the square, women chat beside a new memorial of various coloured metal flowers, which respresent the town’s war victims.

Purple flowers honour those who have disappeared, yellow ones are for landmine victims, green for the displaced and red for those killed. Most of the flowers bear the victims’ names, except for the white flowers for victims of sexual violence, which are left blank.

“The memorial is our way of publicly denouncing the atrocities that happened here,” said Mira. “We want our victims to be visible so that they’re never forgotten.”