It’s a fact, Colombia is interesting. Being in Colombia has provided me with the opportunity to meet a lot of inspiring people. Indeed, I have the chance to work with very intelligent, motivated and dynamic people and I meet new people, old, young, locals or foreigners almost daily. This makes my life here incredibly rich and I am really grateful to have the chance to live this experience, of which I try to enjoy every single moment.
But when I speak of inspiring people, I also mean Colombian people as a whole. For me, it is a first experience of being in a country undergoing an internal armed conflict. It is an even more unique feeling to be living in Bogota, a relatively wealthy city where the consequences are not the most tangible, especially from my inexperienced foreigner’s standpoint, while knowing there are thousands of citizens trying to recover from dramatic events such as the loss of their loved ones, of their lands, or the hardship of being internally displaced. I am not going to go into the details of the historical causes, the development and the devastating impact this conflict has had on the Colombian society. But neither can I be living here without reflecting on the ongoing peace talks and the extremely complex and delicate negotiation process that comes with it. To make it short, after five decades of clashes with the various guerrillas, of which the most well known are the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces), the Colombian government, currently led by Juan Manuel Santos and the centre-right National Unity party (locally known as “la U”), confirmed both entities would be undertaking a peace process. This process is in fact a comprehensive negotiation package to be discussed between the national government and the FARC aiming at finding a lasting solution to the conflict and restore peace in the country once and for all. The talks are taking place in Havana, Cuba, and are composed of three main phases: exploratory talks, a detailed negotiation agenda on the main contentious and fundamental issues to be agreed on in order to reach peace (land reform, political participation, disarmament and demobilization, illicit drugs, and victims) and finally, the implementation of the latter.
At the time of writing, the first phase is over and the second one is well (and I would humbly add successfully so far) underway. Indeed, some of you have probably heard about the recent agreement on land reform signed by the two negotiating parties, which was the first point on the agenda. The second discussion point aims to define the way in which demobilized FARC members will participate in the country’s politics. This discussion is, (as was the previous one and as will be the next ones) very complex and sensitive, especially regarding what political participation of ex-combatants means for victims. Working in mine action made me aware of some of the almost unbelievable atrocities Colombian citizens suffered. Torture, abductions, unlawful killings and terrorism acts were, at one time, commonplace in certain areas. This week, there was a special event organized by La Semana (The Week), a political affairs magazine, where a space was given to victims to share their stories publicly. Among the (too) many sad and heartbreaking testimonies, one particularly caught my attention, most likely due to my current involvement in mine action. On July 29th 2009, a mother was walking her two children to school when she stepped on a landmine and instantly lost a foot. As there was no one around, her 10 years old girl had to run to the village, about half an hour away, to find help while the other kid helped her get away from the mined zone, putting himself at high risk as well. The women said that 4 years later her two children are still very traumatized by this tragic event and that it affects their whole life. This story illustrates perfectly why, in 1997, countries united in banning landmines worldwide. This terrible weapon causes unacceptable harm to people who have nothing to do with the conflict, long after being placed, and the consequences of their explosion are completely disproportionate. This also confirmed to me the need for mine action initiatives such as the ones the Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines (CCCM) is leading, especially because of those two details: first, the woman said the accident occurred as she stepped ‘one or two meters away’ from her usual path. Second, her kid helped her get away from the explosion point. When doing mine risk education workshops with affected communities, CCCM teaches people to adopt safe behaviours when facing contaminated or potentially contaminated zones. The key messages our organization tries to pass on to the population include that people must NEVER get away from the path that is known to be safe, and that when an accident occurs, it is crucial to encourage the victim to get away from the explosion point by her own means in order to avoid a second explosion, and a second victim.
The fact that this woman and her family must still live with the consequences of this terrible event, as must a very large number of victims of violent act posed by ex-combatants, also shows how hard it must be for the Colombian society to find a balance between their desire for peace and the resentment felt after years of suffering. To make compromise on the eventual political involvement of former guerrilla members must also represent a huge challenge for victims. However, following the current nationwide debate allowed me to understand a couple of things that made me change my mind from the radical ‘‘the FARC have caused so much harm to this country they should not be allowed to participate in any way and people won’t accept it’’ point of view to a more moderate one. First, the current process is a negotiation on how to achieve peace, which means the FARC did not surrender. It is therefore necessary that the final agreement present some interest for them, and participating in the country’s politics is part of that. Second, this will not be an easy negotiation as moral and legal concerns must be taken into consideration in order to comply with international and national norms, but first and foremost to respect victims’ right to dignity. How then make it acceptable that individuals who committed crimes against innocent people be involved in the country’s decision making instances without falling into undesirable scenarios of impunity? Also, what are the limits posed by international humanitarian law regarding the participation of criminals into a State’s politics? Considering it is not possible to prosecute every single crime perpetrator, is a promise of complete disarmament and demobilization enough? The academic debate here provides some options as to how a participation of ex-combatants could be considered from a national and international legal perspective and I feel the most controversial aspect of the question relates more to the compromise the society is willing to make with the FARC. I am not in a position to give a valuable answer to these questions, first because my knowledge of international as well as Colombian legal instruments is definitely insufficient, but above all because I was not born in a country affected by an armed conflict and it is very hard for me to weigh the price of peace in these conditions. Nevertheless, and that is one of the reason why I have great admiration and profound respect for these people, some paths to a solution have been put forward suggesting it is possible to forgive without forgetting what happened. In addition to the legal initiatives taken by the government to achieve the fullest possible reparation, truth and recognition of the perpetrated crimes have been pointed out by groups of victims as some key elements to lead the way to an eventual resolution. According to some testimonies I have heard, the fact of knowing where their loved ones are and what happened to them after years of ignorance, as well as a true acknowledgement of their responsibility by the perpetrators is crucial in order to move forward as an individual and as a society. The fact that Colombians are having this vigorous debate proves the country’s will to put an end to years of insecurity and suffering, but the answer as to what extent people are ready to forgive is still unresolved. I have no doubt about Colombians’ capacity to reach a morally, socially and legally acceptable solution, and I am convinced such an agreement will serve as a model of resilience, solidarity in the future and, at least in my case, as a source of inspiration.