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Maria Caro is seen at her home in Bogota, December 1, 2014. Mrs. Caro originaly from the hamlet of Las Palmas of Bolivar department, says she and the rest of her community were displaced by a paramilitary group back in 1999.

Carlos Villalon

This month, Maria Caro spent her first night at home in more than 15 years.

The last time she was in Las Palmas, back in 1999, heavily armed paramilitary soldiers herded her and all the other women into a square in the middle of town. They shoved men and children into two other plazas. In front of each group, the soldiers shot and killed a couple of people, and then delivered some specific warnings. They threatened to rape the women and told them their children would be murdered. "They said the next time they came back here, they better not find anyone," Ms. Caro recalled.

Las Palmas, in the northeast of Colombia, had once been so peaceful a place that people slept out in the streets when it was hot. But for the previous decade its residents, like those in hundreds of other towns where the country's long war had been playing out, were caught between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the army. The day after the threats in the plazas, the people of Las Palmas made a collective decision to flee, to abandon their homes and farms as millions of other people in rural Colombia had done.

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The intervening years have been hard and village life has seemed ever further away, but in December, Ms. Caro returned to her village. She went home with 175 other families who travelled in caravans of buses, piled high with possessions, that came from the four corners of the country.

Their homecoming was made possible by a remarkable land restitution program designed to bring justice to victims of Colombia's ongoing war and help many displaced Colombian families go home. It is also meant to propel peace talks under way in Havana between the government and the guerrillas. Canada donated $2.2-million from 2011 to 2013 in support of land restitution efforts.

"These projects form part of Canada's continued efforts to promote the full implementation of the peace process in Colombia," said Nicolas Doire, a spokesman for the foreign ministry. "They also helped strengthen participation of conflict victims in truth, justice and reconciliation processes."

But critics worry that, with the war not over, it is too soon for people to go home, that young people raised in cities have neither the skills nor interest to return to the countryside and that the long years of the crisis have allowed industrial interests to become entrenched on much of the former farmland.

But Ricardo Sabogal, director of the government's Land Restitution Unit, says this step is critical if there is to be peace. "The principle is that if you were forced from your land, you should be given it back. It's not easy, but it's just," he said. "And justice is one of the fundamental elements of a reconciled society."

Mr. Sabogal's teams have advertised the program and set up temporary neighbourhood offices around the country to take claims. They are rarely straightforward. Few of the claimants have proof of ownership; many fled with nothing when the war arrived on their doorstep or never had documents. Colombia's land registry was decades out of date. Farmers who worked land for years but never had formal title may also make claims, a recognition in part that much land was, and is, concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy owners.

The teams try to track down any evidence the claimants were living and farming where they say they were, 10 or 20 years ago – searches that may take them to retired parish priests, old hospital records and newspaper stories about prize pigs. (While Colombians have been being displaced for more than 50 years, Congress decided to use 1991, the year the current constitution was adopted, as the arbitrary date for this law, in an effort to make the process somewhat manageable.)

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They also use a technique called social cartography to try to determine who lived where. They gather as many people as they can from a displaced community in a hall, project an image on the wall and go around the room asking people to plot out what they recall: Where was the stream? The bridge? Who lived on this side, whose house was over there? When the oral history map is sketched out, they take it into the field and plot the data points on a satellite map.

The land restitution unit then argues the claimant's case before one of 56 specially trained judges. The courts use the principles of transitional justice, in which the burden of proof is on the person who contests a claim. If that new owner is judged to have bought the land in good faith – for example, land seized from peasant farmers and then illegally resold, sometimes using forged documents – the state pays compensation to the new owner but returns it to the original one.

When Las Palmas residents fled in 1999, they first went to the nearest city, sheltering for a year in the sports stadium and hoping they might be able to go home. But threats continued, and so gradually they scattered, taken in by relatives in cities across the country. Ms. Caro said a stranger approached her in 2005 and offered to buy her small farm, for a price she estimates as about one-twentieth of its worth. She was reluctant to sell. "But we needed money," she said. "The state wasn't offering us anything. And the community had disintegrated. So we said yes." The family moved to Bogota and slowly built a new life. Her husband found work as a waiter and they moved into a small apartment in a neighbourhood of rough brick housing full of other displaced people.

The law makes provision for cases such as hers. She said she doesn't know who offered her the fire-sale price of her land but suspects it was agents of the same paramilitaries who drove her off, a phenomenon acted out all over the country. Small farmers, forced to flee and then sell cheap, saw their land end up in the hands of agro-industry or mining companies, or as ranches run by paramilitary chiefs.

In a conversation in Bogota, a few days before her return to the town, Ms. Caro, was by turns anxious and giddy. She had abandoned all hope of ever going home until last year when she heard about the restitution program. It began in 2011, intended as a sign of good faith to the guerrillas, whose grievances include mistreatment of small farmers and lack of access to land.

Every successful land claimant is entitled to receive help designing a project to make their land productive again, and a cash grant of about $12,000, paid in instalments, to fund it. Debts, such as unpaid taxes on the land they could not occupy, are forgiven. Ms. Caro intends to use her family's grant to farm yucca, yams and cattle

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The government estimates that there are 360,000 potential claimants. So far the unit has received 70,000 claims, of which 24,000 are deemed to be in areas safe enough to resettle. Some 13,000 have been processed and 1,600 have been decided by the courts. And 1,100 families have begun to work their land again. Given the complexity of the process, that's an achievement – but with nearly six million displaced people in Colombia, critics say it is far too few.

"It's a Catch-22. You want the process to be thorough but if this is the speed at which things are happening – this law only lasts 10 years – what happens to all the rest of the land that slips through?" said Peter Drury, an Amnesty International researcher who has been studying the process. His organization is particularly concerned about the safety of people who go home, given the state's limited capacity to protect them and the fact that the same forces that orchestrated the displacement may still be in power, overtly or behind the scenes, in those rural areas. Amnesty estimates the amount of land from which people have been displaced at eight million hectares.

"The war has been and is being used to consolidate powerful economic interests, protected by the armed forces," he said. "We're concerned that the only land being given back is the land no one wants." He wonders whether small farmers whose land is now in the hands of mines or plantations will ever get their claims heard.

Mr. Sabogal, however, defends the way the program is running. "It would be more practical maybe, and faster, to just pay," he said. But restoring productive life to rural Colombia, and people to their homes, will in the long run be more valuable than simply paying them for lost land, he said.

Unit staff use the analogy of having a car stolen: Yes, your insurer can come and give you a cheque for the value of a new car, and then you're compensated, other than the loss of your time and good humour. But it's not as good, he argues, as the police finding the thief and getting you your car back; your insurance cheque leaves you with the knowledge that the person who took your car got away with it, is driving your car, has suffered no consequences. That, he said, is not a sentiment on which to build a new society.

"We can do it – the 10 years the law gives us may not be enough, we might need another 10," Mr. Sabogal said. "But we think it's a lot more just and a lot more fair and builds a better society."

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The unit's lawyers have won a number of court cases against industry. The courts recently ruled against three large mining companies and recognized the communal title of a group of 7,000 indigenous people to 50,000 hectares. That may spur land restitution outside the official channels, as some agro-business and mines are now moving to offer to share or return land before they find themselves in court.

But even when families who have been displaced for 15 or 20 years get their land back, they may not be able to use it: Their children have grown up in cities, without the skills to farm, while the parents are too old to do the work themselves. Ms. Caro's three children, for example, will not be joining her. Two are in university now, and all want city jobs.

The unit expects there will be a snowball effect in the returns, as more stories of success filter back to the city. Already some claimants who have been restored their land but not taken the package to go work on it are changing their minds when they see former neighbours beginning to make a go of it.

Only a third of the Las Palmas families are going back so far. "We're hoping to be the first, and then others will see it and come," said Ms. Caro.

Her house in Las Palmas in uninhabitable, but she is staying with friends while they try to bring the village back to life. They do not have running water or electricity like they used to – not yet. She doesn't mind. "Our greatest fear was that we would lose our culture," she said. "It's not about having a materially better life, it's about living united."

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