Ex-guerrillas adjust to a fragile peace in Colombia

by
14 December 2018

Albin Hillert reports from Colombia on how the Lutheran Church is helping former combatants to build purposeful lives

ALBIN HILLERT/LWF

The sociologist Ana Eloísa Gómez leads a workshop in the community centre at San José de León

The sociologist Ana Eloísa Gómez leads a workshop in the community centre at San José de León

“IT’S LIKE building a new life again, like starting to dream again — to believe that there is a possibility of leaving the life you have lived behind; to close the book you were reading and open a new one,” Luz Alcira Ocampo Gómez, a former revolutionary combatant in Colombia, says.

It has been two years since the Colombian government and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas signed a peace treaty in Havana (News, 2 September 2016); today, Ms Gómez is one of a group of former FARC combatants who have settled down for a peaceful life in the valley of San José de León, in the region of Urabá, Colombia.

The two-year-old community, which does not yet have a name of its own, exists in an area that serves as a corridor for trade into Central America, and ex-combatants live a fragile peace: the arms trade and drug trafficking keep armed groups active locally. But, in San José de León, a strong collective has come together.

A group of 27 ex-combatant families first purchased the lot of land, moving from Córdoba near by to settle alongside the 50-or-so families of farmers already living in the area. Today, that number has almost doubled to 50 ex-combatant families. The area has a small restaurant and various committees for community organisation and development, and cultivates the land through agriculture, and poultry and fish farming.

“My dream it is to see this country in peace,” says Joverman Sánchez Arroyave, formerly known as Rubén Cano, a commander in the FARC.

 

“SO, WHAT do we mean by forgiveness? And what do we mean by reconciliation?” Ana Eloísa Gómez, a sociologist leading a workshop in the community centre, asks, as we arrive in the valley.

“We know that there are many things that hurt, that keep us apart. But maybe we can also think of things that unite us, that help keep us together as a nation?” she asks the 40 or so workshop participants.

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She explains that her work is part of a project run by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Colombia, De la Guerra a la Paz (“From War to Peace”).

Part of the ecumenical initiative of the Lutheran World Federation, “Waking the Giant”, the Church offers training in trauma-management to those working to build peaceful lives, as well as guidance on legal issues, particularly relating to ownership of land. Supporting more than 300 families in the larger Antioquia area, they seek to alleviate the risk of re-victimisation, or relapse into violent conflict, by offering support to both ex-combatants and the communities into which they are reintegrating.

ALBIN HILLERT/LWFLuz Alcira Ocampo Gómez is active in the work of both gender and health committees in the community of San José de León, north-west Colombia

A key aspect of the 2016 peace treaty was the promise of access to lands for guerrilla combatants who laid down their weapons: first, as a transition, and then through permanent ownership. But progress has been slow, and, in the wake of this year’s election — won by Iván Duque, a conservative who has argued that the peace deal is too lenient on former guerrillas — there are concerns that the government will not deliver on its commitments.

“In one way, one of our biggest threats today is the State,” the president of the community board of San José de León, Maribel David Galiano, explains. “For example, as we are in an area that is very rich in clean water, to make sure the State doesn’t allow mining companies or others to exploit or damage this resource.

“But also that people know about the reality of life in our communities, that we are people who want to work, live in peace, who want our communities to develop.”

 

MS GÓMEZ explains that she is active on both a gender and a health committee in the community, working to change norms. “It’s like having a vision — both frightening, and like you really want to continue, to hope, and to build something new,” she says.

She describes efforts to find an equilibrium in what has traditionally been a strongly male-dominant culture. “I remember, when I was a child, that before I was 12 years old I knew how to embroider, I knew how to cook, and I knew how to take care of a home. Why? Because even going to school was a problem for me, unlike for my brothers and my male cousins.

“This doesn’t mean that the men have always treated us badly, but that we must reflect on why they think like that, why they’ve thought for so long that women should be subordinate or just remain in the home without the right to move or think freely.”

A lifelong struggle comes to the surface, to create space for women to do things only men have traditionally been allowed to do.

“In one way, this is more about a balance than a struggle,” she explains. “At the same time, it’s like you’re now trying to become part of a context where you haven’t been included before, where women haven’t been considered capable of contributing in all areas, and where you’ve often heard the word todos [everyone”] about people in general, and known that you’re not really included in the meaning of that word.

ALBIN HILLERT/LWFThe community gathers for a meal after the day’s workshop

“At least now, as a result of our work, we see that our struggle for gender equality has achieved a more inclusive language. Today, we talk about not only being todos, but that we are both todas and todos.”

She concludes: “Even if there are some physical differences between men and women, that we are different, we are still all equal as human beings, we all have feelings — some are more emotional than others, and if a man is romantic and caring, this doesn’t make him any less of a man. On the contrary, he is twice as much a man as the others.

 

Rights violations reported. Despite Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement, “Violations of human rights, including attacks on the civilian population and severe restrictions on religious freedom, continue or have grown worse in many parts of the country,” a report published last week by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) says, writes Madeleine Davies.

Violations documented include prohibition of, or severe restrictions on, religious activity, and threats, extortion, assassination, and forced displacement of church leaders. This includes the murder of a 55-year-old pastor by an illegal armed group.

The FARC, the National Liberation Army, right-wing neo-paramilitary groups, and criminal bands are all responsible for the violations, CSW says.

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