PICHILÍN, Colombia — For many years, Pichilín was a place deserted — abandoned, the locals would say, even by the birds. Beyond the unwelcome infamy of having been the target of the first paramilitary massacre in Colombia’s northern region of Sucre, it was a place plagued by visits from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other armed militant groups during the country’s 52-year conflict.
“We were caught between two fires,” said Pedro Salgado, 64, a local tobacco farmer. “One day, an armed group would turn up and tell you, ‘We are going to sleep here.’ You did not know who they were. Then another group would come. We didn’t have an exit.”
In 1996, paramilitary gunmen rounded up the men, killing 12 that day, nine of them from Pichilín. The surviving residents found the bodies of their uncles, sons and fathers on the roads leading out of town. The graffiti scrawled on the walls read: “Death to the collaborators of the FARC. Yours, the Paramilitaries.”
Nearly the entire community fled, and some still have not come back, despite a peace deal signed between the government and FARC two years ago. Those who saw the village at its worst remember the shells of empty houses.
“When we first went, there was not a garden, not a single flower,” said Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas of the civil society organization Sembrandopaz (Planting Peace), which works in the community.
But after decades in the crossfire, there are signs that the community is starting to heal. The health center has reopened, and the village festival that was canceled for years out of respect for the dead is back. The population is up to 110 families, or about 500 people — more or less what it was before the mass exodus, according to Ballestas. Children ride bicycles up and down the streets, the Sunday soccer league is active again, and the kiosk shop has reopened. The gardens are flourishing again: A particularly beautiful space contains an awe-inspiring pink bougainvillea against the turquoise backdrop of a freshly renovated house.
“Now people drive through here and ask: ‘What’s the name of this lovely place?’ ” said Bonifacio Salgado, 79, a former security guard who moved back four months ago. He fled with his wife and 10 children after the massacre and spent 20 years too afraid to return.
“We lost everything, everything,” said Lira Salgado, his common-law wife.
Bonifacio Salgado believes it was the guerrillas who killed his brother, who disappeared in 2004.
He said he stopped visiting the village entirely after FARC rebels took him into the mountains. He pulls a finger across his throat as he explained the ultimatum they gave him.
Earlier this year, he and Lira finally felt safe enough to come back. They just finished installing a new roof. They have a tamarind tree in the garden, chickens and a small dog that runs free on their plot of land.
“There’s still one, two, three, four abandoned houses,” said Lira Salgado, counting aloud as she looked around. “But we want everyone to come back and for the people to come together, like they were before.”
Not everywhere has become safer since the signing of the accord. The deal saw the demobilization of 7,000 guerrilla soldiers, and analysts say the government was not quick enough in moving into territories that saw a power vacuum as the FARC moved on. Coca production is at record levels, and there has been a disturbing uptick in the number of social leaders and human rights defenders who have been assassinated. Guerrillas in the National Liberation Army (ELN) remain dominant in some parts of the country, while organized-crime groups have brought new terror to areas once under FARC control. Some fear the peace accord with FARC could change or be abandoned, sparking new violence.
But there are pockets of Colombia that offer some hope. In Sucre, the peace deal has changed the security situation for the better. FARC guerrillas who stayed in Sucre handed over their weapons and are trying to set up a farming community in the mountains.
Peace brings myriad challenges, and the legacies of the longest war in the Americas are not easily remedied. In the region’s capital, Sincelejo, half of the residents are people who were originally displaced by the conflict, while one-third of the entire population of the department of Sucre — some 300,000 people — are registered as victims. During the war, 37 massacres took place in Montes de María, where Pichilín is located. The wider department of Sucre had 59.
“In Sucre, everyone knows someone who’s been affected,” said Edgar Enrique Martínez Romero, the governor of Sucre, who recalled how two of his brothers were kidnapped for ransom by the guerrillas. During the worst periods, he said, “you could not drive on some of the roads in this department. It was impossible. You would get kidnapped or shot, either by the guerrillas or by the paramilitaries.”
Rebuilding in places like this, he said, poses huge challenges, as development and infrastructure have fallen behind other parts of the country and many people don’t want to move back to the countryside with conditions as they are. “They don’t see the promise,” he said.
The peace deal promised a lot, not just for demobilizing guerrillas but for the rural farmers whose struggle for land reform was one of the causes FARC embraced. A new government took office this past summer, having campaigned against elements of the deal, and many people still question how committed they will remain to the agreement.
“The FARC was the biggest guerrilla group in Latin America. They had the most men, the most guns. Demobilizing them is a step, a move in the right direction,” said Juan David Díaz, a peace and post-conflict adviser for the government of Sucre and a victims’ advocate whose politician father was killed by paramilitaries. “The problem is there’s very few resources for post-conflict.”
He said there could not be more at stake: If people who spent decades on the run aren’t able to reintegrate successfully into society, the risk is that they go back to making a living the only way they know how — with a gun.
“And despite everything, it’s the victims who most want this to work,” he said.
In Pichilín, community leader Luis “Lucho” Salgado, who lost two uncles in the 1996 paramilitary massacre, said many people are still trying to come to terms with what happened here. “It hurts to remember. It marked me,” he said.
He believes the village has yet to see a real peace dividend in terms of investment, but at least they now feel safer day-to-day, and that, he said, “is a start.”
Some of the village’s most hopeful residents, including Olida Feria, who never left Pichilín, even look to the birds now as harbingers of better days to come.
“Those birds, they left in the war,” said Feria, looking up at a pair of blue and yellow parrots flying overhead. “Maybe they were scared of the helicopters. But they’ve started to come back, too.”
Images by Ivan Valencia for The Washington Post. Instagram: @aivanvalencia