Hope for Peace in Colombia – but only if local leaders have the space to lead

Hope for Peace in Colombia – but only if local leaders have the space to lead

(A young woman from San Onofre eloquently explaining what the young people want from their future, December 2019)

Scattered fruit trees and flowers are struggling in the heat of the beginning dry season of Montes de Maria as we walk on the narrow path to the house of Narciso and Manuela. This region of Montes de Maria was one of the hardest hit by violence in the end of the 90s. Many people were displaced from neighboring areas and sought refuge on the Villa Barbara Experimental Farm of Sembrandopaz, a Colombian community organization founded and directed by Ricardo Esquivia. Today Narciso and Ricardo both live on this land.

Ricardo came to Denmark earlier this year when he was awarded the Peace Prize of the Livia Foundation in Denmark. He is a long-term friend and colleague of John Paul Lederach. Lederach has influenced the global peacebuilding field significantly, for the better, and he has developed his thinking through conversations and work with people like Ricard Esquivia in Colombia. Ricardo Esquivia has founded several important human rights and peacebuilding organization in Colombia and is currently leading the organization Sembrandopaz in Montes de Maria, a region of in the northern part of Colombia. I visited him in early December 2019.

Narciso’s story and the story of this region

Narciso was displaced from the village of Santa Fe de Ralito, Tierralta, Cordoba, located two hours south of Montes de Maria. Paramilitaries occupied the village and the commander of the paramilitary forces, alias Juancho Dique (Uber Banquez) would come to his house every day. Villagers in this area were forced to provide food and other services to the armed groups. Most villages were controlled by one of the armed groups, either the paramilitaries or one of the guerilla groups, and in some places, people had to service all groups even within the same day. And if they didn’t comply, they would be considered complicit with the other armed groups and would be killed. Narciso’s son-in-law was killed. And Narciso was shot through the head, the bullet entering through his jaw and exiting below the ear on the other side of the head. But he survived. Because people help one another. Bleeding and unconscious, he was taken to a hospital. His grand-daughter Nicol who was only five years old at the time watched him being shot. She was only two when her father was killed by the paramilitaries.

Today Nicol is 16 years old and struggling to get an education. In fact, the whole family is struggling. If she gets access to higher education, she would be the first in the family. But there is no support for displaced people in this municipality. The inhabitants of this region are mainly Afro-Colombians who descend from slaves that escaped the slave owners of plantations, mines or cattle ranches, and fled to this region. During the 1800s the state of Colombia promoted an ideology that discriminated against the Afro-Colombians and the indigenous people, and this pattern of marginalization has remained up until today. Afro-Colombians earn on average only a third of the average salary of White/Mestizo Colombians, and overall educational quality of schools located in Afro-Colombian communities is much lower and poorer than those in other communities, mainly because of the lack of government support and investment in these areas. While Afro-Colombians make up about a quarter of the country’s population, many were evicted from their land during the armed violence, and even if they have access to a small piece of land which provide their subsistence, only few have land titles.

(Nicol, Manuela, and Narciso outside their home in December 2019)

The Festival of Reconciliation in Montes de Maria

Two days prior to the visit to Narciso’s house I went to the Festival of Reconciliation in Montes de Maria with my friend and peacebuilding colleague Ricardo Esquivia. The festival was held in San Onofre, a small town not far from the coast and holiday resorts of Cartagena. But it was hard hit during the armed violence, and many people are poor and marked by violence and trauma. The paramilitaries and guerilla groups occupied different areas of the region, and there are several sites where people were hacked to death and many thrown in the Magdalena River. In one village along the river there was a bend, and the bodies got stuck and stayed at the river’s edge. The village leader tried for a while to bury all the bodies but gave up and found it cheaper to pay residents to push the bodies back to the quickly flowing water to let them continue downstream. When the people of the region depict their lives and history through arts, the Magdalena River is a dark red path winding through the land – until it turns blue with the end of the violence and the beginning of the peace process. The people of Montes de Maria want to create a new future for their children, and they are working hard to cultivate peace; with the same energy and essential importance as when they are cultivating the land.

The festival brought together community leaders from all 15 municipalities of Montes de Maria. They jointly organize this annual festival to have conversations about peace. Through cultural events such as arts, theatre, and traditional music and dances, people are coming together to strengthen the power of people to cultivate peace. The cultural events are much more than just expressions of art. One of these initiatives brought together a group of youth from San Onofre to talk about their lives, the challenges they face, and their hopes for the future. The artwork that they produced with the help of the Sembrandopaz, a local peacebuilding organisation, was a large mural painting made on canvas which told their stories in a way beyond words. This approach to using arts in peacebuilding is developed by an El Salvadorian arts group, Walls of Hope, that now works in Colombia with Sembrandopaz.

(A young woman from San Onofre eloquently explaining what the young people want from their future, December 2019)

The festival also created a space for dialogues, between local leaders, regional leaders, and between the armed groups and the victims of violence. Some dialogues were facilitated by Ricardo Esquivia of Sembrandopaz, others by the regional coordinator for the Truth Commission Arturo Zea, and others again by local leaders and youth. In the dialogues between local leaders and between regional leaders, issues such as these were discussed: The importance of spaces for dialogue and reconciliation, for youth leadership and inter-generational dialogue, for collaboration instead of competition among local organisations, for addressing exploitation by electric companies, violence related to drugs, water scarcity, and the need ensure access to education, to land and to work, and to build trust between people and the state. Some of the wisdom of local leaders were these:

We should look at peace as resistance to subordination in all its form. By standing together in peace, in our region, we can resist subordination.

We experience dehumanization when not having anything that belong to us

Diversity should be seen as strength, peace as possibility

We have to reorganize ourselves to think as one

Dialogue between armed groups and victims of violence

The third dialogue session at the Festival of Reconciliation in Montes de Maria was between armed groups and victims of violence. It was not the first in the country or region, but it was significant for those who participated and those who felt touched and inspired. The aspiration and willingness to ask forgiveness and to forgive is one that cannot be demanded of anyone. As peacebuilders we can only hope to create spaces and conditions within which people can take those steps and make those choices. The people in the dialogue in San Onofre had made that choice. The ex-commander of the paramilitary group that had carried out massacres was there. 

He was one of the approximately 200 paramilitaries (of 30.000) who had been sentenced to eight years in prison under the Justice and Peace Law of 2005 and given a reduced sentence after being demobilized and confessing his crimes. The ex-commander of FARC from a neighboring region was there. He talked about growing up in a poor village with no possibilities of making a living, and local armed groups that ‘convinced’ him to join them at the age of 14. The regional PRT ex-leader was there. His community had been fighting for decent schools and access to education, and when the state agencies hit down hard on their demonstrations and he was threatened on his life, he felt he had nowhere to go and decided to join the armed groups. A landowner was part of the dialogue. He represents a group in Colombia that maintains the pattern of land-supremacy. During the armed violence he had been kidnapped twice and lost his property. A commander from the army, yet another perpetrator of violence against civilians, was invited but did not come. Many victims were there. They stood up and talked about the massacres, the loss of family members, the inhuman treatment that they had suffered.

A young man came forward and said that when he heard the confession of the ex-commander as he was on trial 10 years ago, he just wanted to kill himself. He wanted Uber Banquez (alias Juancho Dique) to stand up and look him in the eyes. He did. And apologized for the harm done to him and his family. An elderly man stood up and shouted: “I want to know why you killed my son; I want to know why”. Not all questions were answered fully. “I was given orders” was one answer. But one can only recognize the bravery of all who were part of the dialogue and the willingness to contribute to peace, even in the face of personal persecution by those among their own people who are not ready to engage in dialogue.

When everyone hugged at the end of the dialogue, Narciso and I stood and watched in the back. Uber Banquez who came to his house every day during the armed violence was there in front asking for forgiveness. I asked him if it was in fact possible to accept a request for forgiveness when he had endured what he had. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “we have to”; “this is what we have to do to build peace”. This is what the local leaders have committed themselves to do, one step at the time.

The Regional Space for Peacebuilding

The festival is a joint effort of the Regional Space for Peacebuilding of Montes de Maria which is made up of leaders from all the communities of Montes de Maria. They come together in the ‘regional space’ every month to discuss how to keep cultivating and building peace, one step at a time. They deal with everyday problems that can spark a resumption of conflict if not addressed. And they mend relations between people who would otherwise be prone to compete for the scarce resources and limited political power that are made available to these communities. In this space lies the core ingredients of building peace: strategic actors with experience and ideas coming together for a common goal, carrying the history and culture of the land, of building peace, and giving space to diverse voices. No one is kept out and all are listened to with respect. Unlike others, this is a space that is not founded upon or framed by the church. This does not mean ignoring the importance of the spiritual core of religion, also in peacebuilding, but it leans towards an ecumenical approach. And spirituality, within this space, is as much connected to the soil of the land, the connection with nature, as it is with the higher powers.

People like Ricardo Esquivia, who have worked to build the regional space serve as the moral compass of the movement for peace. People like that are important in Colombia – as it was important in South Africa, in India, and in other contexts. People like Narciso are important. People like Lillian, Ricardo’s wife, who have committed to long-term engagement for peace and rural development as part of the SembrandoPaz team. People like Nicol, Ana, Miguel, and other youth who were present at the festival are important for continuing this process and find new ways of transforming their society, both at the level of relations and at the level of addressing the causes of violent conflict.

The hard facts of the conflict – and the power of people to build peace

Almost eight million people were internally displaced in Colombia since 1985 (according to Human Rights Watch), and approximately 220,000 people were killed in the armed conflict between 1958 and 2013 according to Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory. There have been many efforts to negotiate peace, and several laws and mechanisms have been set up to establish peace, the most recent being the 2016 Peace Accords between the Colombian government and the FARC. The Peace Accords signed in Havana in 2016 are not perfect in addressing all the root causes of conflict, in particular the issue of right and access to land, but it is an important step if fully implemented. However, more than 50% or peace accords around the world are not implemented in terms of addressing the causes of conflict, and this often results in resumption of armed conflict again to the detriment of ordinary people who are trying to make a living.

The people in Montes de Maria want something different; the leaders of the ‘regional space for peacebuilding´ want something different. They are fighting for a more peaceful future. While local leaders and social activists are subject to threats and killings – with one social activist killed every three days in Colombia – the region of Montes de Maria has managed to stay relatively peaceful with no killings of social activists since the Peace Accords, and this is despite it being among the regions most devastated by the armed violence. Every day they are struggling to maintain the space for dialogue, cultivating relations, solving issues that threaten to evolve into violence, voicing concerns regarding the peace accord implementation to the authorities and other relevant stakeholders, and developing ideas for how to move towards sustainable peace. There are set backs; that is the nature of this work. But it doesn’t stop the ongoing building of what some call ‘slow peace’.

With the ongoing violence and challenges in the implementation of the peace accords in Colombia, it is the time to rely more on the power of local organisations and local leaders in peacebuilding. But others need to accompany them in their efforts – and external support has decreased over the past 5 years.

We should also ask what we can learn from the people of Montes de Maria, in Bogota and globally. How can the lessons learned on peacebuilding within this region as well the strengths of people of Montes de Maria – and other local peacebuilders like them – be a significant source of national peace and of dealing with issues of global fragmentation and conflict.

The process of transitional justice in Colombia

The Peace Accords of 2016 created the foundation for establishing three independent public institutions with the purpose of seeking truth, establishing justice, providing reparations for victims, and promoting non-repetition of the armed violence: The Truth Commission has a three-year mandate, and is committed to deliver on the expectations. In San Onofre, during the Festival of Reconciliation of Montes de Maria, the regional coordinator of the Truth Commission led a process of getting input of citizens to a timeline of events of violence and events of peace during the past 50 years. People were invited to add the historical moments that were not yet part of the timeline. Juana Ruiz is a local leader and an artist who works to depict the stories of victims of the violence – and stories of peace – through quilts. She had come to the festival although she was intensely working on a room-size quilt to be presented in Cartagena on International Human Rights Day a few days later. She wrote intensely on the timeline. And she came to seek advice from Ricardo Esquivia on an important matter. They sat in the shade in a corner of the festival site and talked: “I don’t have answers to everything”, Ricardo contended. “You must try and hold on to your moral core. Stand up for what you believe in and do not let yourself get pushed around. It may seem easier to compromise your values now, but in the long-term it will be bad for you”. Juana nodded with a pondering gaze and turned to me: “you know, we all come to seek his advice”.

In Bogota, I met with Synthia who works in the Truth Commission and is committed to integrate the perspectives of children and youth in the process of truth telling. In schools of the most conflict affected regions, children are invited to write letters to the Commission and send drawings to tell the story of what they went through, and what they want the future to bring. They want to be heard. Many children in these areas are traumatized but they are extraordinarily resilient. Synthia is insisting that there will be a separate chapter in the final report of the Truth Commission on how the armed violence impacted children and youth, and she is working hard to develop the evidence needed; and to ‘dignify’ the children and youth in the process. She is also arguing that there must be a special report that conveys the messages of the final report to the youth. She has studied Truth Commissions all over the world and says: “Even the Guatemalan Truth Commission had a special chapter on children and youth – and this was 20 years ago”. Other truth commissions produced comics to tell the story to children. “We must give them voice but also protect them from harm; they are the key to preventing this from ever happening again”.

The Bogota process of change – and the disconnect with the local

Colombia has gone through several overlapping peace processes over the past 30 years. This is a reflection of the continued armed violence and the difficulties that the country has faced. But it also shows a drive towards peace, and the ability to come together, at different times, to develop plans, policies and mechanisms for peace and reconciliation. With the Peace Accords of 2016, the foundation was created for demobilizing the armed groups, (only the FARC) establishing mechanisms for justice, truth-seeking, non-repetition, and reparations to victims, rural development, and a step towards land reform.

Colombia has a strong civil society, both at national level and at local level. But the linkages between these two levels are not as strong as they could be, and competition for funds and political influence among the organizations are inhibiting strong collaboration. Strong civil society organisations at national level are doing their best at reaching out to the more than 50 million people of Colombia, many of them marginalized communities with little access to economic development and power in a country that is rated the second most unequal country in Latin America according to the internationally recognized Gini index of inequality. But many national NGOs are mainly focused on the high-level peace process and what goes on in Bogota. This is where the donor and government interests currently lie and where the funding for civil society in Colombia is currently focused.

The massive demonstrations against the government that are now going on in Colombia are barely connecting to the other smaller towns of Colombia. It is a ‘capital-led’ movement. And yet, they speak truth to power. They want change. For the first time the movement for change might spread to the rest of the country with demands for minimum wages, land reform, and other key dimensions of creating a better future for the people of Colombia – and dealing with the causes of conflict.

The disconnect between what goes on in Bogota and in the rural communities is not new. But efforts by the international community is not helping significantly to bridge the gap.

International support and enabling spaces for locally led peacebuilding

Very few representatives of international institutions or Bogota-based organisations participated in the festival in San Onofre. Many were invited. The Swiss Embassy came and listened carefully. They have had a long-term engagement in this area. The local UN office came. But generally, most internationals tend to stay in Bogota, and with the peace accords there is even more focus on the high-level process of peace process, and this discussion is taking place mainly in the capitol. Yet, experience from around the world shows that peace is not build through peace accords. It requires long term peacebuilding efforts to provide space for local organisations to lead the process, one step at a time, cultivating trust, relationship-building, and collaboration, and bringing to the forefront the potential and ideas of the people to pursue a more peaceful path and address the causes of conflict. This requires a long-term commitment to accompany local leaders and communities and support to creating platforms like the ‘regional space’ in Montes de Maria to come together on an ongoing basis to drive peace – together.

The typical international response to arguments for locally driven peacebuilding processes are often that there is too little capacity among local organisations, and the programming and reporting of these organisations do not meet the demands of the international donor bureaucracies and constituencies. Or there is no longer enough capacity within the international institutions themselves to provide the kind of support to local organisations that is needed. Those who strive to continue this type of support, like the Swiss in Montes de Maria, are increasingly challenged to continue such proactive efforts for ongoing peace in light of increasing humanitarian concerns in the region that require more reactive responses. It does not require great wisdom to recognize that if the proactive and long-term efforts for building peace at local level are not supported, there is a much higher risk of resumption of armed violence, which again leads to increased displacement and humanitarian needs.

Other donors like the Danish government no longer prioritises engagement in Latin America for several reasons, one being the notion that, with peace accords the violent conflict has ended and then economic growth must be at the center of attention. However, they forget that economic growth rarely leads to making life better for the poorest, but may indeed feed into existing patterns of inequality and thus increase the gravity of the causes of conflict. Donor priorities also shift due to shifting public and political sentiments in donor countries, and funding is moved to areas where they contribute to prevention of irregular migration to Europe and to its own national security. This is highly problematic and shows a trend towards social and political fragmentation in the global space, lack of solidarity and sense of inter-connectedness, and continuing power inequalities within the global governance system including among institutions working with the aim of peacebuilding.

The international institutions must find better ways of supporting local leadership in peacebuilding. And now is a good time in Colombia. Then Colombia can teach the rest of the world about peacebuilding.

The new generation – and the old – have a role to play

Ricardo Esquivia has earned several life-time awards from highly recognized global institutions – for good reasons. However, his lifetime vocation in peacebuilding has far from ended. When I mention Ricardo’s name anywhere in Montes de Maria and among peacebuilding and human rights activists in Bogota they struggle to find the right word to fully grasp the importance of this man. He changes people and societies – the latter through the former. During our long conversations Ricardo will listen to me, and when I finish talking there is silence. Ricardo is pondering… contemplating… reflecting and taking what other people say seriously. And it prompts people around him to ponder and think together to come up with solutions. That is a gift – to all of us.

The young people like Nicol are sometimes impatient, sometimes patient, sometimes present, sometimes in a ‘different world’, but always carrying the power for change – through the strength, cleverness, clear mindedness, hard-work, innovation, and optimism that they hold. They are concerned about the future of this country. They may be disillusioned, frustrated and easily mobilized towards the wrong aims. But they are also easily mobilized to work for peace if given a chance and are ready to take on leadership – if given a chance.  In the shade of Narciso’s house talking about the future of Nicol and the future of the country, it is clear that the people of Montes de Maria and Colombians like them have the power to bring peace to Colombia and to the world.

With great respect for a Colombian peacebuilder who holds the moral compass and the essence of human dignity for a great number of people who have had the privilege of getting to know him. While Ricardo Esquivia does not wish to take center stage, his empathy, sense of responsibility, strategic thinking, spiritual listening, connectivity, persistence, optimism, and drive, provide many people with the hope that peace is a possibility if the power and potential of people have space to flourish.

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