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.”