In the nation with more internal refugees than any other, you won't find the uprooted and the dispossessed huddled in tent camps or fleeing in long caravans. Colombia's war doesn't look like that, at least not anymore.

The United Nations counts seven million "internally displaced people" here, more than in Syria, Iraq or any other war zone. Forced to flee their farms and villages, they have resettled at the edges of Colombia's cities, finding refuge in places like this treeless, teeming slum on the outskirts of Bogota.

"Every time you leave, you have to start all over again with nothing," said Isaac Valencia, 33, who was displaced by the war as a boy and again as an adult, when commandos from a drug gang torched his home and took his land.

Valencia is waiting, like everyone here, for the outcome of the October 2 referendum asking Colombians to approve or reject the government's peace agreement with the leftist FARC guerrilla group it has been fighting in Latin America's longest-running war. The pact promises to bring the rule of law to Colombia's most backward, hyperviolent rural fringes, where so many have fled the crossfire of communist rebels, government troops, right-wing militias and cocaine warlords.


Under the accords, the government promises to significantly enhance programs to help the victims recover their farms or receive land elsewhere. But resolving the displacement crisis is likely to be a long, thorny process.

Over the course of the half-century war, rural residents have poured into Colombia's cities to escape bombings, land mines, massacres, kidnappings, death threats and land seizures. They see peace with the FARC - or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - as a remedy for one source of violence, but they know many regions are still threatened by other armed groups. They also don't trust the government to protect them.

Valencia, who lives alone on a steep hillside above Soacha, with no running water and a zinc roof, wants to go back to his farm. But he insists he must have "guarantees" that he won't be victimised again.

Colombian activists stage a protest in Bogota to commemorate the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Photo / Nicolò Filippo Rosso for The Washington Pos
Colombian activists stage a protest in Bogota to commemorate the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Photo / Nicolò Filippo Rosso for The Washington Pos

"If they do what they say they're going to do [in the peace accords], I'll be the first one to pack up my things," he said. "Until then, I'm staying right here."

Nearly 15 per cent of Colombia's population has been displaced, but that doesn't quite capture the scope of the conflict. This is a country derailed by war, its economy slowed and its potential development sapped by the fighting.

For the displaced and others who bear the war's worst scars, the peace deal is a beginning, not an end, said Alan Jara, director of the government agency tasked with registering and caring for those officially recognised as victims of the war.

"They want to overcome what happened and they want to know the truth," Jara said. He was abducted by the FARC in 2001 and spent more than seven years in captivity, much of it chained to a tree - "2,760 nights," he said. "I counted."

The peace accords pledge to make the displaced whole again by returning their lost property, or assign them farmland in other parts of Colombia with better security. They will be eligible for cash assistance and technical help to make sure their farms are economically viable.


But the reality Colombia must face, said Jara, is that many refugees will stay in cities. Some don't want to relive the trauma of their flight. They have raised urban-minded children with no interest in farming.

"Some of the older ones may want to return because they are nostalgic for the places they left behind," Jara said. "But when they go back to their communities, they see those places don't exist anymore. The lives they remember are gone."

Gritty Soacha is one of the places with the highest concentrations of displaced people in Colombia, according to U.N. officials, with more than 50 per cent of its half-million residents migrants from somewhere else. Unemployment runs high, and crime and drug-related killings are on the rise.

Shacks and illegally built homes cram the hillsides, blanched by dust from a nearby sand quarry.

Jose Erasmo Yate, 68, a shaman from a Pijao indigenous village in the department of Tolima, fled more than a decade ago after an offensive by right-wing paramilitaries against the FARC turned the area into a war zone. He lives in a small rowhouse beside a loud, busy street, performing cleansing rituals and healing ceremonies in a tiny back room with an altar and a portrait of Jesus.

Yate said being displaced is a kind of "sickness of the heart and soul." He has asked the government to resettle him with other scattered Pijao in an indigenous reserve where they can farm again if the peace accords succeed.

"If we have our own land, we can start a school and recover our ancestral customs," he said. "It would be so beautiful to go home."

The Colombian government has provided housing for some of the displaced in a sprawling complex of apartment blocks in Soacha's center. They contain a volatile mix of old foes. Demobilised FARC guerrillas, ex-paramilitary fighters and victims of both groups are sometimes assigned apartments side-by-side, Ruben Dario Quevedo said. Death threats from paramilitaries forced him to flee Tolima 10 years ago with his wife and four children.

Isaac Valencia learned to distrust Colombia's government after soldiers grabbed his brother in 1997 and handed him over to paramilitaries. Photo / Nicolò Filippo Rosso for The Washington Post
Isaac Valencia learned to distrust Colombia's government after soldiers grabbed his brother in 1997 and handed him over to paramilitaries. Photo / Nicolò Filippo Rosso for The Washington Post

Quevedo, 46, received a small apartment two years ago, but to reach it he must limp up five flights of stairs. He has two ruptured discs in his back from a workplace accident.

He has no desire to start over again back in the countryside. "We suffered so much when we first arrived in Bogota. We didn't have any way to pay rent. Sometimes we went two or three days without food," Quevedo said. "You feel so humiliated."

"I don't ever want to go through that again," he said.

Martin Gottwald, the country representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, says Colombia has come a long way toward facing up to its crisis of displaced citizens. And unlike many war-ravaged nations, Colombia is not a basket case, he said, but a middle-income country with a legal framework to recognise the status of internally displaced people, or IDPs, and help them.

"Colombia has the most sophisticated registration system in place for IDPs," Gottwald said. "The fact that it has such a high number of IDPs may be a consequence of that system, because it allows them to be counted."

Gottwald cautioned, however, that the peace accord will not mean the end of forced displacement in Colombia. The country's conflict is "metastasising, like a cancer," he said, as it morphs into a battle for control of rural Colombia's illegal economies, especially the drug trade.

Last year, more than 200,000 Colombians were forcibly displaced. A disproportionate number are indigenous people and Afro-Colombians living in remote coastal areas that have high strategic value for traffickers and contain little-to-no government presence, Gottwald said.

Valencia, the farmer living on Soacha's hillsides, grew up with 13 siblings in the impoverished Choco department along the Pacific Coast. It was a FARC stronghold until 1997, when the Colombian army moved in and right-wing paramilitary gunmen followed.

Valencia's 18-year-old brother was stopped by troops one day while coming home from a soccer game. Valencia said they handed him to the paramilitary forces, who accused him of helping the FARC. His dismembered corpse washed up on the riverbank a few days later.

When the paramilitaries left, the FARC guerrillas came back and accused Valencia's other older brother of being a government snitch. They shot him. He was 16.

That was the first time Valencia's family fled, and the first time he learned to be wary of the government.

"How can I trust them after they did that to my brother?" he asked.

Valencia, who is unemployed, said he tried to plant a small garden in the dust outside his house earlier this year. It didn't work. A hard rain fell and washed his plants away.