“Nunca nos fuimos. Siempre resistimos” – We never left. We always resisted.
By the beginning of the 21st century, San Carlos was a ghost town.
Over three decades of violence – encompassing paramilitary groups, guerrilla insurgencies, and state actors – provoked one of the largest exoduses in Colombia. It’s recalled as the ‘la guerra contra todos’ – the war against everyone.
Thirty of San Carlos’ seventy-four regions were totally abandoned; twenty more became partially uninhabited. With whole regions deserted, nature was left to re-conquer once vibrant, urban spaces.
While fleeing meant incertitude, a severance of social ties, and the threat of even more violence, most Sancarlitanos saw it as a lesser evil to certain and constant conflict. Of San Carlos’ total population of 25,000 people, only around 5,000 chose to remain throughout the years of terror.
Those who stayed are known as the ‘resisters’.
Shirly and her family were among the 20 percent of those who stayed. She remembers the time vividly:
“As I was a child, my perspective’s very different to that of my parents. I remember the food became very expensive. There was a daily curfew at 5pm, though fighting could start at any time and stray bullets were always a danger. We had a refuge room in our house that we used for cover.
“It’s not as simple as saying we ‘resisted’: many people had no choice but to stay, as families needed stable work”.
This piece of street art is typical of award-winning artist Mr. Garek’s style, which combines birds, people, and lively colours. It also captures the essence of San Carlos during the years of violence: all that remained were the ‘resisters’ and the birds.
In the years following 2008, Sancarlitanos have been returning to their hometown en masse. And if not for the few remaining vacated roads and buildings, the violence that gripped San Carlos for so long would be almost invisible.