Local leaders at risk:

Angela refused to betray her community

Angela had been working with young people in her community for 14 years when, one night, armed men broke into her home. “They wanted me to turn over all the young men in my group so they could take them to war,” says Angela.

She and her husband refused.

The armed men gave them two options: flee or die.

A territory at war

“I come from a violent area, where you constantly hear people shouting, ‘don’t kill me’,” explains Angela.

She is from a coastal area where people live in palafitos (houses built on wooden pillars over the water). Here, the first houses where armed groups torture, kill, dismember and “disappear” their victims were built.

“They dispose of bodies in the water under the houses. If you see a corpse floating under your house you can’t say anything,” she says.
In addition, armed groups have created “invisible borders” – imaginary divisions where they exercise control over a neighbourhood or a specific place. People cannot move freely, and their lives are at risk if they cross these invisible borders without permission.

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Minutes to flee

Angela and her husband fled in the rain with their three young daughters. They took a taxi and hid in a neighbourhood far from their home, but still close to the violence: "You have to leave an area of violence to take refuge in another area of violence," explains Angela.

The next day, when the sun came up, they fled their community and never returned. They left almost everything behind.

“Leaving my territory was like an abortion, it’s like taking the baby out of its mother’s womb. Because they took me out of my land to a place I don’t know,” she explains.

A journey in search of protection

Angela had to leave almost everything behind and was forced to flee her country to protect her life and her family. According to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies in Colombia, since the signing of the Peace Agreement until April 2023, approximately one community leader has been killed every three days in the country.

When they arrived in Ecuador, a friend of her husband received them.

“Thanks to him we didn’t have to sleep on the street. He took us in and fed us for many days,” she recalls.

Angela, her husband and their three daughters have started their lives over in Ecuador, after being victims of armed conflict and violence in Colombia. Photo: Karen Dávila/NRC

After a few months, Angela and her husband started to rebuild their lives from scratch, selling coconut juice on the street. But according to Angela, this is just the beginning: “I would like to have a big restaurant and sell crafts made of coconut shells.”

She and her family have received financial and food assistance from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), as well as access to information, counselling and legal assistance.

Today, they are part of the more than 74,000 Colombians who are recognised as refugees in Ecuador. As of December 2022, more than 198,000 Colombians had applied for refugee status in Ecuador, which currently provides asylum to the largest number of Colombian refugees in the world.

For Angela, being recognised as a refugee is significant and opens many doors: “It has allowed me to start a business, open a bank account and ask for a loan,” she says.

Angela and her family received assistance from NRC, and now they are recognised as refugees in Ecuador. Photo: Karen Dávila/NRC

The Colombia of her dreams

“Sometimes, I feel a desire to return to Colombia, but I don’t want to risk leaving my daughters without a mother or father,” says Angela. She wishes she could continue working hand in hand with her community, giving talks on equal rights and the prevention of gender-based violence to women, as she did before she was forced to flee.

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Angela believes that, to achieve a culture of peace in her country, there must be a fundamental change, starting with the children: “All the violence in Colombia is threatening our culture, and our children are growing up without the safe environment they deserve,” she laments.

She is continuing to pursue her passion from home in Ecuador, teaching her daughters that they can work for their community in the country that has welcomed them. She also reminds them that, although they are far from home, they should always keep it in their hearts because, hopefully one day, when they grow up, they will be able to return to Colombia and fulfil their dreams.