The experience of return - going back to nothing: Colombia's cycle of violence

Returning to the place of origin should be the end of the cycle of displacement. Life as displaced should draw to a close and a new future should open up hopes. In Colombia, however, returning home is no guarantee that violence and fear will end. New threats may lead to further displacements and these, over the years, to other returns. For many, the cycle begins all over again.

Dilemmas surrounding return

Making the decision to return is extremely difficult. In fact, only a small proportion of displaced Colombians (12%) have expressed the desire to return to their place of origin.7 For most of those who talk to MSF, safety remains the main concern. A few, however, are attracted by the opportunity to become self-reliant again in a rural environment, making a living off the land.

"In the city you had to endure hunger. You have to pay for everything, water, rent, food. It's really hard to live borrowing everything, working without pay. Here, on the other hand, the land is really good, although people live in fear and there are always rumours that somebody or another is going to get killed."
&#— Father living in a community of return

Return is seen as an escape from the hardship of urban slums. But it also entails a plunge back into the insecurity of rural areas, a return to the "ghosts" of the past, and the fear of what the future now holds. Many return only to find desolation. If they had little before, now they have even less.

Of the return communities in which MSF works, the village of Saiza in Cordoba province perhaps best exemplifies the realities of return. People abandoned Saiza after a massacre in 1999. The massacre took place after a long period of insecurity. Directly after some towns people were executed the community was ordered to leave or face the consequences. As in many other villages in Colombia, no one chose to stay behind.

Over the next five years what had once been a social and commercial centre for the region became a ghost town.

Harvests were lost, the jungle overtook the streets, and access for vehicles became impossible. The health centre

and the school fell apart and the church remained closed. Nevertheless, in 2003, after failed attempts to settle in urban slums in nearby cities, the first families decided to return. The joy of being "home" again quickly mixed with the distress of finding a town that had fallen into ruin.

"One left this [place] so pretty, so tidy, so alive and one returns and everything is destroyed and taken over by the jungle... I felt sad when I saw the town after so many years, everything was destroyed... but I felt at home, even though the trees grew through what was left of the roofs. The first thing I did was clean my house and plant some corn."
&#— Returned community member

People described to MSF how being back in Saiza affected them. They expressed an overwhelming sense of dread, fears revived from memories of the past, which in turn generate new fears about the present and future.

"When we arrived we were scared by everything, continuously remembering what had happened. We didn't sleep at all. I didn't go back to my house because it had been burned. We stayed together and people didn't go out. We were afraid, and we're still afraid. There are rumours that one or another is coming to kill someone. I would probably leave again because why live with so much fear?"
&#— Community member and father

It appears that the experiences of the violent past have left a permanent imprint on those who return. Few con- fide in others. Solidarity is lost. People are not willing to work together, or to invest in time and energy in the community if they are unsure they will be able to stay for a long time.

"Now there is fear and jealousy. We don't trust anyone anymore... People are only interested in investing energy in their own thing, make quick money and get out of here as fast as possible. Nobody thinks about this town in the long term."
&#— Returned community member

Limited assistance for those who return

Colombian law stipulates that the government must assist displaced people in their return to their villages.8 When available however, help is limited and returnee communities must often rely on their own resources or lobby for assistance from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

As the areas of return remain dangerous, there is little chance that health services will be extended to those communities in the process of re- establishing themselves after violence. In the Saiza region, for example, there is still no vaccination coverage 1.5 years after people began returning. The former hospital has not been rehabilitated, and there are no health teams besides MSF providing medical assistance to around 8,000 people living in the region.

"I have to come every second day to be healed of a wound. We have no mule, so we have to walk for more than four hours. It is too far away, and I do not like leaving my other children alone back home... before you [MSF] came here, we had to go up to the clinic in Carepa, further away, but only if we had enough money. If not, then we did not go... we stayed at home in pain."
&#— 20-year-old woman, rural community resident