As victims of violence in Colombia head home, they find their communities also need mending

The farmers of this hillside village seem to harvest their coffee amid ghosts. There was the lady who sold empanadas and was executed by guerrillas for being too friendly with the army. There was the neighbor whose nose and ears were chopped off by paramilitary gunmen before they realized they were torturing the wrong man. They killed him anyway.

“After all that violence, what you have left is fear,” said Maura Leonor Vega, 60, one of thousands of people who fled this area in 2003 and 2004, as violence built to a crescendo.

A decade later, the farmers along the Perijá mountain range, which divides northeastern Colombia from Venezuela, are starting to return. And the lessons they’re learning — about rebuilding their livelihoods and their communities — could be a road-map for the nation as it stumbles toward lasting peace.

Despite dramatic security improvements in recent years, Colombia continues to have one of the highest internally displaced populations in the world. The United Nations says 3.9 million Colombians have fled their homes— either internally or abroad — as they’ve tried to escape a half-century of violence. Local authorities say the number could be as high as 5.1 million — or about 11 percent of the population.

And while thousands are still being uprooted each year, many are returning, as the military pushes into areas once disputed by left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups, and the government has made land-restitution a national priority.

Vega said she first considered coming home in 2006 after the military installed the 7th Mountain Battalion near her farm. But when she and her husband returned, they found their home had been stripped for its wood and zinc and that their crops were dead. Soon after, Vega’s husband died. The doctors said it was a heart condition, but Vega blames the stress of the conflict and the sad state of their life’s work.

In 2009, the National Coffee-Growers Federation, the government of the Netherlands and private and public foundations launched a program to help 600 families from five municipalities in the region find their feet. The program, called “Sustainable Coffee-Growing Colombia,” included free coffee seeds to restart harvests, subsidized loans and teams of social workers, nutritionists and agronomists to live in the area alongside farmers.

By the end of two years, more than 5,800 acres of coffee farms in the region had been recovered, and 2,450 acres of food crops had been planted, allowing farmers to feed themselves again.

But the project also revealed that the community’s “social fabric” needed as much mending as its economics. As this area became the epicenter for battles between the 41st Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC guerrillas, and a paramilitary group led by “Jorge 40,” the locals were caught in the middle, said Leonardo Rodriguez, 44, one of the farmers.

Neighbors tended to isolate themselves lest they fall afoul of deadly rumors that might link them to one faction or the other.

“It was better to be by one’s self than to be in the wrong company,” Rodriguez explained. “People who were unknown were seen as extremely dangerous.”

When the organizers of the coffee program first began holding meetings to discuss the project, they were met with resistance. They had to change the name of the program from “Friendship Group” to “Friendship Committee” because using the word “group” had too many political connotations.

But slowly, people began to see these meetings as a way to reconnect.

“The project helped rebuild friendships and the values of being a neighbor,” said Hermes Murgas, 43, one of the farmers in the project. “Without it, I really think this area would still be desolated. It’s very hard to get back and recover after you’ve fallen so hard.”

Murgas was so grateful to the program that he wrote a song about it. Tellingly, the chorus has nothing to do with coffee. It says, “We learned how to forgive, we’ve learned a lot.”

The program, now in its second phase, has been extended and expanded to work with 800 families.

Colombia produced 10.9 million 132-pound bags of coffee last year, making it the world’s fourth-largest coffee producer. And the tiny red bean is virtually Colombia’s national symbol.

But the violence was particularly hard on the coffee industry. From 1997 to 2008, 24 percent of all coffee farmers abandoned their crops. That figure was 7 percent higher in areas most hit by violence, according to a report by the Center for Economic Studies at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. Also during that time, the area of coffee planted fell by 32 percent, with a 6-percent increase in the most violent regions, the study found.

While not all of those shifts are attributable to violence, there’s a clear connection between conflict and the abandonment of coffee farms — as farmers switched to less-visible crops that made them less susceptible to vacunas, or bribes, that armed groups demand.

How to bring millions of people home is a critical question now, as the government and the FARC are in Havana trying to hammer out a lasting peace accord.

“This is a model that could be followed, that could be copied and improved,” said Agustin Giraldo Gómez, the regional executive director of the National Coffee-Growers Federation. “It’s been proven in the field and it’s really helped plant the seeds of peace and faith in the future.”

There are still hints of past violence. During a recent visit, soldiers were patrolling the area close to where coffee growers were meeting.

Sgt. John-Freddy Londoño said there were still small guerrilla units in the region and farmers might be susceptible to extortion during harvest.

“We’re here so that the agents of terrorism don’t take advantage of these farmers,” he said.

Vera says she still doesn’t sleep well. She’s recovered her farm but lost her family. Her daughter — who narrowly escaped being recruited by the guerrillas when she was just 10 years old — refuses to come back. Her grown sons were forced to make their life elsewhere.

But she credits the program with keeping her spirits afloat.

“After all the sadness that we faced, this program has brought us joy,” she said, “because it brought us together.”