When the food supply at the community shelter had dwindled to a single package of Swiss chard, Robinson Álvarez Monroy stepped outside and hung a red scarf.
His mother founded the shelter in Florencia, Colombia, 11 years ago to house people unable to scrape together the money for even a slum home in the Amazonian city. Many were fleeing the violence of the country’s long civil war.
Edith Monroy called the modest house, its brick walls adorned with images of Jesus, Mary and the Catholic saints, “A Light at the End of the Road.” But now mother and son had nothing to feed the 35 people staying over. Álvarez turned to Monroy: “We need help, right now.”
Across Colombia, the red flag — or scarf, or towel, or T-shirt — has come to symbolize an urgent need for assistance. It’s a cry for help. At A Light at the End of the Road, the scarf has been waving for more than a month.
“We need to make sure the world knows we exist,” Álvarez, 31, said in a video call from the shelter in the Villa Real slum of Florencia. “We have nothing to eat. We depend on good-hearted people who pass by and see the flags. That is how they know we are hungry.”
In the hillside slums around Florencia, hundreds of wooden homes now fly red flags.
Colombia had reported more than 11,000 cases of the coronavirus and 463 deaths, far fewer than South American neighbors Peru, Ecuador and Brazil. The southern city of Florencia, a haven for refugees during the war, has so far been spared from the worst of the disease. But lockdowns have devastated the region’s fragile economy, and the informal laborers who must work to eat.
Adriana María Moreno arrived in Florencia with her husband and two children nine years ago to escape the rebel group FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Her husband, a former soldier, feared for his life.
She worked as a manicurist. He drove a taxi. Then President Iván Duque declared a state of emergency, imposing coronavirus lockdowns. The couple couldn’t work, and the family ran out of food. They’ve been relying on the generosity of others. Even with the red flag hanging outside her house, Moreno said, she has not received any help from the local government.
“We eat only two times a day. For tomorrow, my mother is going to send me some eggs,” she said. “After that, I have no idea what I am going to do.”
The local government has distributed about 15,000 grocery bags to Florencia’s poorest families, according to Mayor Luis Antonio Ruiz, but he said it’s not enough. “We can’t take care of everyone without the central government helping,” he said. “We can’t ask people to stay in their homes when they are hungry.”
About 150 people protested with red flags and red masks recently to demand more help. The local government and the church have joined efforts while waiting for the national government to respond. People in the slums say help comes from those who see the flags and stop to give them food.
Sandra Forero, a 35-year-old single mother of three, moved to Florencia five years ago to escape the FARC. She worked cleaning houses and ironing clothes for wealthy families. Then came the coronavirus. Now, she said, she’s stuck with hunger.
“A good woman saw the flag and gave me tuna and plantain,” she said. “Also, some eggs. That is what we have.”
Forero lives in a small wooden house up a hill. She cooks with fire in an improvised oven made of rocks. All she makes, she said, goes to her children. At night, she sits outside her house, looks down at the city lights and thinks of how quickly her reality changed.
“Often I think of my children,” she said. “It is sad to know that your children are going to bed only with a piece of bread someone else gave to you as charity.
“Hunger feels like sadness. It hurts.”
Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Design by J.C. Reed. Copy editing by Ryan Romano.