The first time his village was overtaken by rebels, Juan went running through the hilly farms where he grew up, leading his grandmother along as bombs exploded like thunderclaps around them.
"Everyone was running. Nobody knew what to do, where to go," he says. Soon after they fled, his grandmother died of a heart attack. "It was the worst time of my life, I thought."
But it wasn't. Not even close.
By the time he celebrated his 30th birthday in late 2010—at a Catholic Relief Services-funded safe house for refugees in Pasto, a city in southern Colombia—Juan had been kidnapped twice, beaten nearly to death, stabbed, forced from his home three times and, more recently, separated from his infant son and wife.
He thumbed through a thick notebook in which he had painstakingly documented every attack, and listed the names of hundreds of other Colombians who had been killed or displaced by the South American country's decades-old internal conflict.
"With all this that's happened, it's hard to feel safe—even here," he says.
"You know?" he asks Janine, who came to the safe house after her husband was killed and son was forced to flee to a city in northern Colombia.
"I can't even go outside. I'm afraid they're looking for me," she says, looking to check who is at the gate of the safe house, which is set off a rutted dirt road and marked by just one small sign.
Juan and Janine are two of the thousands of Colombians who have passed through this safe house for displaced people. They both planned to cross the border to Ecuador, where CRS has helped hundreds of refugees set up new lives and start small businesses. Juan hopes to reunite with his family there.
Violcence in Countryside Intensifies
Colombia's armed conflict—and its millions of victims—is as serious a humanitarian crisis today as it was decades ago when it began. Behind Sudan, Colombia counts the second highest number of displaced people in the world and the largest in the Americas. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that, as of 2010, 3.4 million Colombians were displaced. At least another 100,000 Colombians have fled to neighboring Ecuador seeking asylum or refugee status.
"In this region, we have one of the worst situations for displacement in the world," says Edison Palomeque, who coordinates programs for displaced Colombians in Ecuador and Colombia for CRS.
The conflict pits the Colombian military against guerrilla rebels—the most notable being the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC—and, more recently, armed paramilitary groups. It began in the mid-1960s largely in rural Colombia and later spread to cities. Residents in the countryside say the conflict has intensified in recent years in small communities, largely too isolated to receive assistance.
"You hear about it less now because it's affecting people in rural Colombia. It's still very bad," Palomeque says.
The armed groups, including drug traffickers, battle to control land in the rich, coca-growing hills of Colombia. Innocent residents—peasant farmers and indigenous Afro-Colombians—are increasingly paying the price. As much as 9 million acres of land have been stolen in the past 25 years of the conflict.
'I Don't Know How to Live This Life'
Landowners are forced from their homes with little notice, leaving their farms and all worldly possessions to arrive in a city they may have never visited before to begin a life they never expected to live.
"I don't know how to live this life," says Fabiola, who fled her Putumayo home in southwestern Colombia last June. She was ordered to leave the land just minutes after her husband was killed by one of the insurgent groups.
Five months pregnant at the time and already a mother of three, Fabiola had no choice. No transportation served her village—such services, including health care, are rare in these communities—so she began to walk, her three young children trailing behind her.
They trudged for 5 hours on footpaths through the hilly countryside until they reached a larger town, where they boarded a bus. Eight hours later, she and her children arrived in Pasto, asking for help from the diocese. Workers there said Fabiola was so thin that they didn't believe she was actually pregnant.
Today, Fabiola rents a room in a musty concrete building near the highway overpass in Pasto, a quiet little city that seems to stir only during important soccer matches.
'The Most Important Thing'
Through CRS' Rural Economy and Agriculture Production project, she received hygiene and cooking kits and food staples such as rice, beans and cooking oil. Carried out in both Colombia and Ecuador, the project has reached thousands of displaced Colombians and poor Ecuadorians. It provides the kits, food, psychological assistance and, for some, training and capital or equipment to start their own small businesses.
For Fabiola, it was the only assistance she received. "When we left, we weren't able to bring anything with us. Everything we had was our land and the farm and our lives there," she says.
Last year, the Colombian government started a push to return hundreds of thousands of acres of stolen land to displaced farmers and provide land titles for the first time to others who live in or near contested land.
But those who have been chased out are doubtful they will be able to return.
"My community is virtually gone; almost everyone has left," says Mario, who fled his village in November 2010 with his 3-year-old son and wife. They ended up in a CRS-funded shelter in Ibarra, Ecuador.
Mario said his only choice is to start a life as a refugee in Ecuador.
"They took everything from us," he says, "except for the most important thing: our family."
Ezra Fieser is a freelance writer based in the Dominican Republic.