What do you mean, peace?

April 6, 2017

Her name is Maria. At sixty-nine, one of the village’s veterans but with the energy of a newborn. I enjoyed her breakfasts and lunches a good many times, but what I enjoyed most of all were our conversations. One day after I finished my yucca and maize soup, I enthusiastically brought up the subject of the peace agreement with the FARC. Maria’s face suddenly turned gloomy. She looked me in the eyes, turned down the volume of the one-o-clock news and said:

“My son, if foreign leaders attend a peace ceremony to shake hands, is that peace? If the FARC lay down their arms but other, more violent, armed groups fill in the gap, is that peace? If poverty and inequality are still widespread in many areas of Colombia, then what does peace mean?”

She paused for a moment, staring out of the window while two young girls in their school uniforms passed by.

“For us it is hard to trust a government which promises change but fails to provide basic services, fails to provide security, and has ignored so many of its people for decades.”

Rough start
Since November, I’ve lived in Colombia researching the period after the signing of the peace deal between the national government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the so-called period of ‘disarmament, demobilization and reintegration’. This is when the nuts and bolts of ending the armed conflict need to take place and is crucial to the success of the peace process.

Thus far, implementation of the peace accords has not gone smoothly. Three months after the original deadline, not one of the 26 demobilization camps, where United Nations staff officially register the guerrillas and collect their weapons, is finished. Some people accuse the government of tactically delaying the work in order to demoralize the FARC so guerrillas will desert. After disarming, the FARC will continue as a political organization, giving the government a possible motive for getting FARC members to leave the camps and hence decrease the FARC’s influence.

Regardless of whether these suspicions are true, FARC guerrillas returning to their communities at this stage of the peace process could be dangerous. First, they will not receive legal status unless they are on the UN lists. This, in turn, means they will not be registered by the government as demobilized and therefore will still be seen as rebels. Second, the uncontrolled return of ex-FARC members endangers the process of their harmonious reintegration into the communities, and may increase levels of local insecurity.

Idyllic village
My conversations with Maria took place at a small rural settlement named Caldono, in the southern department of Cauca. As one of the areas most affected by the war, the absence of peace has shaped daily life in Caldono for decades. Virtually no one here is untouched by the violence and all bear the weight of their personal stories. Six weeks in this idyllic village in the Colombian Andes gave me the opportunity to get a better sense of the conflict and experience the current developments first-hand.

You don’t ‘create’ peace by shaking hands or signing a document. Building peace requires decades, involvement of all levels of society, and structural solutions to underlying root causes like corruption, inequality and illicit drug crops cultivation. It requires the transformation of Colombian society. This won’t be easy. And whether or not Colombia will succeed in this quest remains to be seen.

I am not gone yet, but I already know I am going to miss Colombia. The thrill of unsafe motor rides. Empanadas, often being the only acceptable alternative to rice and beans. The spectacular landscapes. And, most of all, the Colombian sense of humor and positivism. Even after more than half a century of war, Colombians will greet you with a smile on their face and wish you a good day.

Well, as you deserve it now more than ever, Colombia, I wish you a good day too.

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