I have different memories from when I was four or five years old. On the TV in Colombia, there were many news reports of bombs and destruction in the major cities, or people wanted by the military whose capture would lead to individual reward for the right information.
When I was 12 years old, I had schoolwork about the “Bogotazo,” referring to the riots in Bogotá after the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948, and how that moment was crucial for our history. The last name of the killer was Roa, which is my last name too. That captured my attention and I ended up doing an investigation of violence in Colombia, and why the wars happened. That was the period I realized how bad things were.
In 2008, I traveled to England to study English living there in peace for two years. I didn’t feel afraid, had a lot of friends, and I could do activities in the community feeling like I was in a safe space. In that time, I felt happy but also sad at what the people of my country were living through. Then, I decided to start working for a kind of peace.
Just over a year ago in October of last year, I experienced one of the saddest days in my life. After more than 50 years of conflict with FARC-the oldest guerrilla on the continent, and three years and half of negotiations a cease fire agreement was signed by all the major fighting parties in front of the United Nations Secretary-General. Colombian had the opportunity to approve the agreement through a popular vote, and sadly 52% percent said “NO,” while 40% didn’t bother to vote.
For the first time on my life, I felt embarrassed to be Colombian. I thought about going to live in another country, but the next week, young people show to the whole country a light in darkness. They started marching in cities throughout the country, demanding peace, and a new agreement. Thanks to that dialogues re-started on December 1, 2016 a new agreement was revised, and ratified unanimously approved by the Colombian Congress.
We are hardworking and good natured people. What unites us is the hope of having a better future for our children and to be the generation that left a memorable footprint for others to follow, peacefully. I think one of the most important things is to remember people that our destiny does not depend on our govern or politicians, our destiny depends on us.
It has been almost a full year since ratification of the peace agreements between the Marxist guerilla group FARC-EP, and the national Colombian government. After more than 50 years of conflict in my country in which an estimated 250,000 people were killed and an additional 60,000 are still missing, we as Colombians must rise to meet the challenges of peace in order to succeed, and survive.
So this is our opportunity. We can be an example for the world of how to overcome adversity, how to fight against terrorism and how to end an armed conflict in a country.
As a result of our historic agreement for peace and reconciliation, more than 7,000 guerrillas have come out from the jungle all across the country to the so-called Transitional Adjustment Zones (ZVTN). This mass demobilization was the first crucial step in the process of reintegration. Of critical importance, more than 11,000 FARC guerillas laid down their weapons turning over 7,132 guns. Through the provision of identity cards and a census, we now know crucial information that will enable us to design and implement reincorporation plans.
In this process, 112 minors were demobilized and handed over to UNICEF and the Colombian government to begin the program "Differential Life Path" special program of care for minors who were fighting in FARC ranks.
With the first phase of demobilization successfully completed, Colombians can now turn to the next step of reintegration of former guerrillas back into our communities.
On August 15, 2017, the Transitional Adjustment Zones changed to “Territories for Training and Reincorporation,” spaces where former combatants can receive the training, education and support they need to return home. There are 23 rural zones around the country created for demobilized combatants coming out from jungle, needing space to live while they follow the process of giving up weapons and to start their preparation for re-entry into civil life. These spaces offer support a wide range of support including vocational training and secondary education.
In addition to the aforementioned support, each demobilized fighter is eligible to receive 2,000,000 Colombian pesos (approximately $680 USD), as well as a monthly stipend of 620,000 Colombian Pesos (or, $204 USD), nearly equivalent to a minimum wage job, for 24 months. These resources are intended to be used during the education and training period to support the bridge between demobilization and eventual employment.
The last significant component of the demobilization process is transformation of the FARC from a guerilla movement, to a political party. Widely recognized FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, known most popularly by his nom de guerre, “Timochenko,” even declared his candidacy for the presidential election next year to succeed Juan Manuel Santos. I believe Timochenko running for president is an excellent example of democracy, though I will choose not to support him. Through voting, I and others can show FARC that we disagree with their platform, without violence.
The social changes since the war’s end are also represented in subtly but no less significant through the evolution of the the group’s name from “armed” to “alternative”, now known as the “Common Alternative Revolutionary Force” (FARC).
On September 1, 2017, over 10,000 people met in Plaza de Bolivar in central Bogota for a period of memorialization, and celebratory concert. Despite the social discomfort and unease, there were no disturbances. without disturbances, without violence, peace was the thought that guided the evening.
In this historic moment, it is difficult to understand how some Colombians do not celebrate this chance for peace, but in a country like Colombia even peace is polarized. Opponents have taken advantage of the hopelessness of many, the ignorance of the peace agreements and the fear of repeating history to mislead the media generating new hatreds, divisions, and violence in our midst.
The truth is that we have learned to live with the war. We see homicides and war as normal. Our reaction when someone is killed or when there is a massacre is of acceptance. “Oh poor people,” but we don´t stop our lives. When there have been anti-violence protests my husband and I walk in them with our children, but no one else in our families do. We are in a violent culture, and sometimes we discover ourselves being violent. It’s complicated.
It is true that there are many issues remain to be addressed and much work to be done, but if we work together we can make this peace meaningful, legitimate and sustainable. Based on my journey growing up in Colombia and entering the larger world , as a mother, spouse, and advocate on behalf of former girl combatants, I would declare to the Colombian government, new political parties, and all Colombian people that we must keep in mind several cautions to ensure war stays in our past:
Do not repeat the genocide
Now that the FARC has been constituted as a political party, there are already some red flags about a possible new genocide. Many Colombians remember the mass killing of members of the Union Patriotica (UP) a leftist Colombian political party founded by FARC, as well as the targeting of the Colombian Communist Party in 1985 after a peace process negotiation. At that moment, the UP suffered political violence that led to its extermination as a party, with more than 5000 members targeted and killed. Disturbingly, the report “Trochas de Paz y Esperanza: informe nacional de derechos humano” documents that between April 2017 and August 2017, 23 people tied to FARC were killed; 12 were FARC former combatants and 11 were relatives of former FARC members. This targeted killing must end.
Defend Human Rights Champions
In 2017, after the implementation of the peace agreement, according to the report of "Somos Defensores", 335 human rights defenders have been victims of some kind of aggression that has put their life at risk and 51 community leaders have been murdered. This political violence has special resonance in Colombia, and has long been used as a tool to intimidate and silence ideals and movements. However, with the ceasefire and official end of hostilities, political violence has increased by 30% over last year.
End the Displacement
Leading organizations that monitor displacement in the country, such as the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP) and the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR), point out that despite the signing of agreements with the FARC, forced displacement continues. Despite the pledges and monitoring, Colombia continues to hold the dishonourable distinction of being number one in the world for internally displaced people. The UNHCR representative in Colombia stated that, "in recent years the figure has dropped, however, if we talk about 2017, the UNHCR has registered 42 events of new displacement, more than anything in Pacific Zone representing about 7,500 people, most of the new displaced are indigenous or Afro-Colombian." The explanation for this phenomenon lies in the fact that in those areas that were left by FARC are now being disputed and controlled by other illegal groups.
Hold Our Government Accountable
Our government is nearly inoperative; the processes that are carried out to implement the agreements are slow, impractical and ineffective. An example is the case of demobilization camps (ZVTN) that were not ready when the guerrillas arrived at them. According to the mission of the UN, for the month of May of the year 2017 more than 50% of these green zones were not ready for use.
In addition, the state has not occupied the territories that FARC left behind, leaving a vacuum of authority and order. Now, illegal groups are disputing these territories and deforesting our habitats to create new drug trafficking routes and to increase illicit crops. Due to crippling poverty and a lack of access to markets, peasants themselves are beginning to clear cut forests to use them for livestock and agriculture.
Stop the Corruption
Corruption is one of the greatest detriments to our society. Those who get into power, who should watch over the common good and the needs of the citizens who trusted them, focus on themselves and fill their pockets with what belongs to the citizenry. Magistrates, senators, mayors, presidents are routinely exposed for links to paramilitaries, gangs, and networks of white collar criminals. To understand the magnitude of this scourge, we would have to do another complete article, but to get an idea, it is estimated that 50 billion pesos (over 17 Million USD) are lost annually in Colombia because of corruption. In the last year alone more than 19,000 people were indicted in Colombia for corruption. One recent scandal was the Odebrecht case where $ 11 million USD in bribes to public officials to obtain infrastructure contracts between 2009 and 2011. But the worst was June when our anti-corruption prosecutor Luis Gustavo Moreno Rivera himself was captured by an elite group of CTI for corruption.
Prepare for Peaceful Elections
Soon there will be elections and the opposition will use all means to further polarize Colombia so that a new group can rise to power and undo the progress that has been made so far. Many Colombians live in fear and panic that the polarization of the country will tear apart our fragile social fabric and steal our chance at a lasting and sustainable peace.
It is true that these issues generate despair and disbelief, but they should not be seen as synonymous with division. All of these issues that concern us must be seen as reasons for unity: despite our differences we need to join together to end these scourges that affect us all. The opportunities to repair our social bonds are now more visible thanks to the disappearance of the oldest guerrilla in the continent.
One sign of hope was the recent visit of Pope Francis to Colombia. It was a political-religious event that unlike anything else we have known, His visit amidst this turmoil managed to unite us, to make clear our shared desire for peace, and to offer a glimpse of a return to hope. The motto of this visit was, "Let's take the first step" and sought to galvanize Colombians to pursue peace and reconciliation. This motto has a deep meaning for us, because in order to be able to take the first step it is necessary to get out of lethargy, petrification, fear and overcome the normalization of the abnormal. It is necessary to recognize that violence in Colombia – and its hidden forms of inequality and inequity -- comes not only from illegal armed groups but also from all of us. Violence has been a force that has both underwritten and corrupted our culture and our society.
We live in a culture of violence, we have naturalized death, war, injustice, beatings, indifference, and that is why we urgently need to resignify ourselves as a country. We must together weave our future based on our shared values and not on our differences.
To move forward towards this vision, the Serendipia Institute recommends that Colombians take into account three specific points:
Model the Peace We Seek
We must first look at ourselves deeply and recognize the specific moments in which we ourselves are violent. What is our daily contribution to the culture of violence that encases us . A few months ago, in the middle of the peace process, the president of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos invited all citizens to disarm our language; we can make peace with the words we use and the way we communicate. Building on the call of President Santos, let us disarm not only our language, but our hearts, minds, thoughts and intentions.
Disarmament is not only for the FARC and other guerilla groups. We have to lay down the weapons of our language and thoughts that lead us to be violent in our homes, with our children and neighbors, in our places of work and worship.
As we look at ourselves and compare it with the reintegration process that is taking place for the demobilized, we can see that all Colombians need training and support, not just the FARC. We all must train ourselves to handle our emotions, act with compassion, to accept differences, and to be agents of positive change in society.
Ask yourself: what should I disarm in my own life? What can I contribute to a new culture of peace?
Unite in Empathy
"Taking the first step" fundamentally means that we need to recognize each other, empathize with each other's experiences. We need to begin by listening and trying to understand the paths travelled by the other without judging.
When we talk about FARC, we are not simply talking about an illegal armed group that it is demobilizing, we are talking about people. In this case, we are talking about more than 10,000 people, more than 10,000 families, more than 10,000 stories filled with very human experiences, pains, dreams and longings.
In this sense, the research conducted by the National University of Colombia is instructive as it illuminates the human toll of the conflict. Through these census, we can glimpse the humanity of the people involved in the conflict. For example, we now know that most of the former combatants are peasants, 66% of whom came from rural areas, or that the war stole the childhood of almost half of them because 47% of them were recruited in their childhood.
Many are surprised to know that over one third of all combatants are women and girls and nearly as many have a physical or mental ailment. More than half of those who recently demobilized have children, and since the signing of the agreement peace until March of this year we have seen a “baby boom” with more than 77 babies born and 114 women pregnant. This surge in pregnancies shows their longing to start a new life and the hope they have in a better future.
We have learned a great deal about the demobilized, especially in terms of study: less than 300 have university degrees, with only 57% having any primary school and only 21% with a secondary-level education. We know that demobilized Colombians are eager to take advantage of the chance to learn and further their studies.
To finish this small attempt to understand and empathize, we have learned also of their dreams and desires through the research. Given that most of the demobilized are peasants, 60% want to return to the countryside and dedicate themselves to agricultural work. Thanks to the peace agreement, we have an opportunity to support these farmers as Colombia works to transition away for the production of illicit crops like coca cultivation.
By listening, we can see that the demobilized are fellow Colombians who are similar in so many ways. We can ask ourselves; what if we had been in their place? What would I have done? As we collectively take these first steps, we may uncover more that stiches us together as we weave our future as a country.
Once again, it is worth highlighting the words of the Pope Francis who ignited a spark of hope for reconciliation and a new future for Colombians:
"Reconciliation, therefore, becomes substantive and is consolidated by the contribution of all; it enables us to build the future, and makes hope grow. Every effort at peace without a sincere commitment to reconciliation is destined to fail”.
This peace is for all of us to share and depends on all of us to achieve. Conflict and violence in Colombia not only materializes through armed groups, but manifests in gender –based violence, violence against children, homicides, in everyday quarrels or interpersonal violence, crime, corruption and other types of violence that we live with day by day. All of us must recognize and seize this historic moment in which we have the opportunity to end the cycle of violence. Let’s take this chance to reflect about who we are as a society and and work together towards who we want to become. The whole world is willing to give us a hand to achieve the peace that we have all longed for.
One of the best ways to contribute in this process is to become leaders and social entrepreneurs as an exercise of responsible citizenship. Anyone can work for love: we do not need a degree or a salary to transform our culture. We must only listen, recognize the needs of our community and contribute towards addressing them from our own abilities, knowledge and efforts.
The story of Colombia is unique. At the same time, we know that we can learn from our global partners and share what we have learned with communities across the globe.
-----Lissette Mateus Roa is the co-Founder of the Serendipity Institute in Colombia and a Global Associate of the Goldin Institute.