At barely 5 feet tall, with her oversized sky-blue coat dripping off her body and her hair pulled neatly from her face, Fanny Acosta Huertas' appearance speaks "mother of three" louder than "intrepid human rights crusader." She is, in fact, both.
Coordinator of the Diocese of Ipiales Social Ministry's border program, Fanny works near the Colombia-Ecuador border in communities that few of us have heard of, and even fewer have visited.
These small rural villages are caught up in an internal armed conflict in which left-wing guerrilla fighters, paramilitary groups and the Colombian military fight for resources and territory—whether for personal profit or to clear corridors for military advantage or for drug trafficking.
To get to the villages, Fanny must pass through checkpoints guarded by heavily armed guerrilla fighters, negotiate with commanders and avoid land mines.
"Fanny has more experience and knows more about what's happening in the communities affected by the conflict than perhaps anyone else," says Father Vicente Legarda, who directs the Diocese of Ipiales Social Ministry. "She does things that few other people would do. She's a jewel."
As valuable as she is to the Church, she may be even more valued in the communities she serves. Those who haven't left the villages are under constant threat and largely feel abandoned.
'We Have the Catholic Church'
"We don't have any services. Our school didn't even have a teacher until recently," says a resident of La Victoria, an isolated community in the border region from which tens of thousands of residents have fled in recent years. "We have the Catholic Church. We have Fanny."
With Fanny's help, residents can begin the arduous process of declaring themselves displaced and applying for government assistance offered to Colombians caught up in the conflict.
Fanny is one of Catholic Relief Services' key partners in our work in regions along the Colombia-Ecuador border. In her travels to remote communities for more than decade, she has been threatened with death, regaled with horror stories and has seen misery firsthand.
In 1995, when her eldest son was 4, Fanny worked in job training programs for displaced Colombians. By 2000, she had three children and was traveling to the countryside 5 days a week. "I was gone Monday morning and I'd come back late Friday, rest for a couple days and go back out on Monday," she says.
Those trips put her face-to-face with the dangers of the conflict.
"The worst times for me—the scariest—have been when I've been standing in front of a [guerrilla] commander and not knowing what would happen. I remember saying, 'If you are going to kill me, then please just kill me. Don't torture me with these moments of not knowing what is going to happen.' "
Luckily, she has always been let go, with a community leader or a guerrilla soldier vouching for her.
Today, Fanny travels less frequently to the communities. The emotional weight of the job, though, has not lessened.
"Every day is another painful story. There are so many people that come in here every day who are going through something terrible," she says.
What she has heard and experienced haunts her. One of her children is studying psychology to help people—just as his mother has. And, although her children are getting older, Fanny has no plans to do anything else.
"I love this job. And every day you realize that there are more people who need your help," she says. "They are the ones who inspire me."
Ezra Fieser is a freelance writer based in the Dominican Republic.