I’ve been thinking a lot about Luz over the past few days. I met her on my first trip to Colombia – when I was investigating reports of persecution of Christians and trying to establish what was really going on there. Her testimony was key in convincing me that Christians were suffering direct violations of religious freedom. We visited her where she was staying, in a large town in the heart of FARC territory. She was an IDP (Internally Displaced Person) – a refugee inside her own country.

She’d spent most of her life living under the authority of the FARC, a leftwing guerrilla group that has been waging war in Colombia for almost the last half century. She told me that the FARC had closed the churches down and forbidden Christians from meeting together for worship or prayer. She also told me, however, that Christians had still found ways to meet together in very small groups despite the frightening potential consequences for disobeying FARC orders.Until then, I’d known nothing about the severe repression under which Christians in FARC controlled areas live.

Eventually, Luz had chosen to flee her town, leaving everything behind. she sought refuge in the town where I met her – an island, mostly under the control of the government with the help of US military contractors and soldiers, in a sea of guerrilla controlled land. Her options there were very limited – the only safe way in or out was by air, and someone like Luz couldn’t afford a ticket on a plane. Because of the insecurity of ground transport, goods had to be flown in as well, making the cost of living in this town disproportionately high – prohibitively high for the impoverished IDP population. Many women and children were caught up in prostitution, an unfortunate byproduct of the presence of the military and contractors. I have no idea where Luz is today. I haven’t been able to return to that town since then because of security concerns. She’d be in her late 20s by now – maybe married, maybe a mother.

I remember taking this photo and being struck by her beautiful smile, full of joy despite the harsh life she’d lived and was living.

Luz isn’t her real name. Although ten years have passed, I still don’t think it’s safe to publish her real name or the name of the town where I met her online. Luz means “light” in Spanish and I have given her that pseudonym because she was one of the first people to help me to see the reality of persecution in Colombia. She took a huge risk telling me what life was like for Christians in FARC territories – the consequences for sharing information like that can be severe.

I’m not sure why I’ve been thinking so much about her lately. I have been able to keep in touch with many of the people I’ve met through my travels, but not Luz. I am so grateful to her for sharing her story with me – she’ll probably never know but it served as part of the foundation for my organisation’s work in her country.

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