San Carlos is a rural municipality located four hours east of Medellín. Known as “The Sweet Coast,” the many waterfalls and swimming holes that dot the municipality’s seventy-six villages and three small towns make the region a beautiful and in many ways idyllic place.
Water is a primary economic resource for the municipality. The confluence of six rivers provides the resources for a hydroelectric complex that generates close to one-third of the country’s energy.
These resources have also attracted armed actors. For decades, the FARC and ELN dominated the region. Beginning in 1998, paramilitaries challenged the guerrillas for control. Between 1998-2005, two guerrilla groups, two paramilitary groups and the army fought over this strategic area.
Residents paid a high price in this war. Hundreds were kidnapped, killed, raped, tortured, disappeared, or forcibly recruited into armed groups. Guerrillas sowed landmines throughout the region. Eighty percent of the population fled, leaving half of the villages completely empty. After paramilitary demobilization in 2005, however, residents began to return to their homes in such high numbers that the municipal government declared a crisis of return.
The problem of return in San Carlos—and the response of state support—is a new one for Colombia, a country that has been grappling with the challenges of internal displacement for three decades. Five million people are currently displaced in Colombia. Most wish to be re-settled in cities; few seek to return to their mainly rural homes.
San Carlos is an exceptional case, both in terms of the violence suffered and the support received for return and reconstruction. Novel alliances between municipal governments, national agencies, the military, non-governmental and international organizations, and private sector entities have formed to implement pilot projects in demining, income generation, historical memory, and house construction, among others. President Juan Manuel Santos and many other government officials have identified these projects as models for state-supported return.
While the case of San Carlos provides an example of innovative collaborations, these projects meet the needs of only a fraction of the thousands of families returning to their homes. Many of the factors and actors that caused conflict remain. Peace is a precarious terrain.
Yet, it is slowly being built through the farmer who returns to plant, the teacher who remained through the worst of the conflict and kept the home fires burning, through the single mother who brings her children back to the village, through the neighbor who listens to her friend as she cries. It is built through the psychologist from Cali, the construction worker from Medellín, the agronomist from Bogotá, and the soldier from Barranquilla who come to play their part in remaking community after conflict.
It’s a long road home.