National Geographic : 2018 Jan
88 national geographic • JanUarY 2018 aqueduct made water supply problematic when I visited. And yet for a cohort of its residents in ex- ile, nostalgia for their place of birth proved strong enough for them to band together, 2,000 strong, in defiance of death threats and their own dread- ful memories, to reclaim it. Luis Torres led the return campaign 17 years ago, and when the first 130 people agreed to come back to El Salado, he raised the funds to hire the trucks that brought them home. An articulate 71-year-old with a rugged face and a startling live- liness about him, he was employed when I visited as the primary intermediary between the town and the Semana Foundation, which for many years coordinated the effort to resurrect El Salado. In the beginning Torres had to negotiate per- mission for the residents to resettle their town with a FARC detachment that then held sway over the region. He subsequently spent three months in prison, charged with “rebellion,” and then went into a long exile in the Nether- lands, Switzerland, and Spain before he felt it was safe to return. Now he glowed with a sense of accomplishment as he showed me the sights of his hometown: a cell phone tower that at last allows Saladeros to communicate with the out- side world, a preschool, a hundred new houses for the community’s poorest families, a couple of storefront groceries, an evangelical church, a street lively again with scampering children, neighbors waving hello. “ When people first came back here, their fears were wide awake,” Torres remembered. “And they had a stigma chasing them. In the cities they say about us, ‘They must have done something if they had to leave their homes.’ No one wants to hire a displaced person. And for our part, we have a mistrust and fear that won’t go away. It’s only recently that people have started leaving their doors open.” Depending on who was taking stock of the improvements—Torres or, say, me—one could see either heroic achievements against all the odds or modest recovery to the tune of millions of donated dollars, without solving many of the town’s most basic problems, including water, jobs, and education. And El Salado is just one small town out of thousands in similar straits. It was only two years ago that it acquired its most significant improvement: a 12-mile stretch of paved road that reduced travel to the nearest major town and highway to 30 minutes, down from as much as four hours, depending on the rain. Perhaps the transformation of El Salado has simply allowed it to become one more commu- nity without adequate water, sewage, education, health care services—and where all too many campesinos lack title to lands they may have oc- cupied for generations. Luis Torres has an ultimate dream: He sees himself standing in the crowd and applauding as the ribbon is cut on a technical school in his hometown, one that will train the kids who now zip around so aimlessly on their motorbikes for something better than a dirt-poor life. “Once I see that ribbon being cut, I’ll die in peace,” he said. at the center of the new Colombia, the for- mer guerrillas who played such a large role in cre- ating the old one have grander dreams. “I want to help create equality not just for ourselves but for all the Colombian people and—why not?—for the world,” said a young man whose nom de guerre was Alex. We were sitting on an overlook, taking in an expanse of valley, all green fields and gold- en light. Behind us was a bare-bones communal kitchen, and around us a new settlement—one of 26 built from scratch in the past six months— designed to accommodate 300 or so demobilized Luis Torres has a dream: A technical school in his hometown of El Salado, one that will train kids who now zip around aimlessly on motorbikes for something better than a dirt-poor life.