Under the constant threat and stomach-churning drone of provocative military aircraft swooping overhead, we played football with laughing, joyous children from a displaced river-side community in the heart of the Colombian jungle.

The game was played on a mud pitch on which, not long ago, the same children had looked on in terror as invading paramilitaries used the decapitated head of one of their community elders as a ball.

I took a dawn dip in the river with the Conservative Party's shadow international development spokesperson Gary Streeter. It was the same river into which the Colombian army had, a few years ago, thrown bodies to the crocodiles.

Such atrocities remain as evidence of the "dirty war" of modern-day Colombia, a "complex" scenario from which the civilian population has fled within the country's borders. Now those people are attempting to return home in an amazing act of bravery and defiance.

Along with Jenny Tonge, the LibDems' international development spokesperson, and Sandra Osborne, Labour MP for Ayr, we tried to overcome fear for the week of our fact-finding delegation. Members of the community of Cacarica in northern Columbia, of course, have to endure this fear every day of their threatened lives.

In many ways, Colombia has become a microcosm of the world's problems: it meets the demand for the world's cocaine, and the world (including Britain) lavishes it with arms so that the atrocities escalate. Competing factions (the national army, the paramilitaries and the guerrilla force FARC) fight for control over land. The innocent civilians who live on that land become pawns in a world which will not readily accept their asylum applications.

The US wants to give Colombia a massive aid package, but it doesn't want to attach any human rights conditions to it. The fear is that the US will lavish money at the warring factions simply to prevent the Marxists from taking control. This might fulfil the Americans' political objective, but it will merely escalate the conflict to the detriment of the civilian population.

The European Union also wishes to assist Colombia with money, and a fortnight ago Mo Mowlam, the Cabinet Enforcer and Redcar MP, visited the capital of Bogota to find out for herself if there is any collusion between the army and the drug-running paramilitaries.

It was these concerns that led me, as an advisor to the Bishop of Durham, who has long had a special interest in the violence in Colombia, and the UK politicians to scrape the surface of the Colombian experience. We had meetings with United Nations representatives in Bogota, including human rights and refugee monitors, with senior diplomats from the British Embassy, with representatives from BP who mine the country for oil export, with journalists, church groups and non-governmental organisations such as Peace Brigades International (PBI) and Justice and Peace. Both these latter organisations try to provide protection to displaced communities attempting to reconstruct their lives, by way of "accompaniment" - being seen to live and travel alongside the vulnerable communities caught in the middle of a civil war.

A representative of Justice and Peace escorted and accompanied us along the six-hour river trip through the dense Colombian jungle until we discovered first hand a problem encountered by the people of Cacarica three years ago. After enduring an aerial bombardment and with troops swarming all around them on the ground, the national army gave them between 24 hours and seven days to leave their land. They were told that the "headcutters" (the paramilitary) were following behind the army and the army would not be responsible for the community's safety.

Women, some pregnant women, and children joined the men of the community fleeing by boats and gripping onto logs. They travelled down the river we were now on but, like us, they discovered there was too much silt and the vehicles could not pass through. Women lost their children, born and unborn, and with the sound of gunfire closing in, some 70 or so people died. We, however, merely had to spend hours walking through the swamps of the jungle until the river was passable. Our group preservation, collectively and individually as we struggled up to our waists in mud, soon swept aside political differences - "having been through that experience together, I'll never be able to attack you in the Commons again", said one UK politician hauling a political opponent out of the mud.

The Colombian government has promised to dredge the river so that the Cacarican community can return home - and flee again if the future demands it. But that promise remains unfulfilled, like so many of the good words and intentions spoken by President Pastrana during the 1998 election.

What remains remarkable about such communities of displaced persons and the protective/advisory Peace Brigade or Justice and Peace personnel is their refusal to bear arms or to take sides within the civil war. In the midst of death, of desperation, of lost dreams, the cries of the children, the tension, the forced disappearances, the assassinations and growing sickness without access to education or medical care, the communities elaborated a set of proposals which they submitted to the government. These include protection of their communities, title to their land, community development, resettlement of the displaced and moral reparation for atrocities committed. The people of Cacarica painted their symbol onto a t-shirt for us. "Self-determination, life and dignity," it said.

Many of the Cacaricans have returned to rebuild their community in the jungle, but they are just a handful among the two million that have been displaced within Colombia since 1985. The government, though, is growing increasingly deaf to the concerns of these people, although ironically, the government claims their return is a success story on the path to peace, but the same government is growing increasingly deaf to their concerns.

If the US package (the terms of which are uncertain) is part of that process, I believe that there has to be incorporation of human rights conditions enforceable against all the armed actors in the Colombian conflict.

Many European governments and aid organisations are holding meetings at the moment, and there will be an important international gathering in Costa Rica later in the year to discuss the non-military aspects of the Plan Colombia.

Our Parliamentary delegation hopes that the UK government, along with other European States, will fully engage with developments concerning the Colombian peace process. The brave communities such as those of Cacarica can survive only with the support of the international community and organisations that make a practical contribution to peace on a daily basis, such as Peace Brigades International, Justice and Peace and Christian Aid.

l Glen Reynolds is advisor to the Bishop and Diocese of Durham on development issues, and co-warden of the Friends Meeting House in Darlington