Colombia is a country whose public image has been shaped by such themes as narco-trafficking, jungle warfare, illegal arms smuggling and urban terrorism. It is unfortunate that a country with a proud culture and a wealth of agricultural and mineral resources has been stereotyped in the eyes of the world by this single profile.

Yet there is another story in Colombia, a story that has been nearly eclipsed because it is one of the globe's silent crises, a human emergency that is mutely unfurling against the country's violence. I am referring to the hundreds of thousands of poor and helpless people who have fled their rural homes because of the ruthless clashes between the country's armed groups.

What started as a barely perceptible trickle has now swelled to a wave of overwhelming proportions. Over the past three years, the number of displaced has doubled to 180,000 people a year. In the past 15 years, more than 1.5 million people have been displaced--and there is no end in sight. Colombia's internally displaced people constitute the biggest humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere and will likely remain as such well into the new century.

In response, the U.N. World Food Programme is launching its first relief operation in Latin America dedicated exclusively to internally displaced persons. We will use food aid in a variety of ways to restore stability to the lives of some 200,000 people who have been away from their original homes for periods ranging from two months to 10 years. The models for re-integration that come out of our operation will eventually be adapted to much larger numbers of people. The aim is to bring as many of them as possible back from the edge.

It is a complex challenge, because the crisis gestated for more than 20 years in the torturous struggle between guerrilla and paramilitary groups, which have used threats, intimidation and murder to chase people off their land.

One of these was Georgina Paternina. Two years ago a group of men invaded the farmhouse in southern Cordoba province where she and her husband lived with their seven children. Her husband was led off; several minutes later, Georgina heard the shots. To this day, she does not know who the men were or why they did it. She buried her husband, and for the next 20 days sat paralyzed with grief and fear. Finally she left, taking the five youngest children with her from one displaced-persons settlement to the next, a pilgrimage of misery that has ended, for now, in a wooden shack beside a sewage ditch outside the city of Monteria.

Because fear is such a cheap and potent weapon, the armed groups use it as they would salt on food. Typically, members of a group will appear in a locality and announce that they have a list of names of people alleged to be disloyal to the group's cause. Next comes the killing--a massacre of community leaders and businesspeople allegedly on the list. Within hours, the locality is a ghost town, because the risk of even more murders is just too great to take.

And so, overnight, Colombians who supported themselves as farmers, ranch hands or casual laborers become homeless beggars--los desplazados. Family by family, widow by widow, child by child, they drift into a netherworld with no identity and few chances of a social and economic recovery. They filter into whatever empty buildings and spaces they can find: a soccer stadium, a school, a half-built senior citizens' home, the livestock stalls of an agricultural fairground. For a time, a group of indigenous people lived under a bridge in the town of Tulua until the municipal council resettled them at the summit of a mountain. For six months, their only steady food supply came from the World Food Programme.

The suffering these people have endured is almost beyond description. Colombia desperately needs peace, because only peace will end the cycle of displacement and dispel the climate of fear. Peace will foster human rights and will enable humanitarian groups such as the U.N. agencies and dozens of nongovernmental organizations to carry out their work without the rigorous security precautions now required. But lasting peace will be achieved only if all parties to the conflict agree to honor a permanent cease-fire and to uphold a political solution with the government.

In the meantime, there are still the countless displaced persons who need food and shelter and hope that this particular world they live in will change. The World Food Programme is helping to meet those needs, but we need the support of the international community. Let's not allow these victims of a terrible violence to be forgotten.

The writer is executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme.