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Six Things We Learned in Colombia - Presbyterian Peace Fellowship

The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship delegation to Colombia in January 2019 focused on learning about the Peace Accords–both at the government level and at the local grassroots level. We met with many communities of campesinos, people displaced by violence, people working to support children whose parents have been killed in the violence, and others. We also met with members of the UN Verification Commission, the Truth Commission, and the Commission for Monitoring, Impulse, and Verification of the Final Accords. Delegates have shared much of what we learned (and continue to share reflections) on the PPF blog, and this is an attempt to pull out a few of the themes we heard from many of the people and groups we met with.

1. It’s all about land. Delegate Alison Wood writes: “That’s it, that’s the whole message. If you understand that, you understand the whole thing.” At the Colombia Accompanier trainings (next one is October 11-14 in Montreat, NC!) we talk about how the  Colombian civil war–and many conflicts around the world–started because of land. Over five decades later, that’s still true. Over five decades later, about 8 million Colombians have been displaced from their land, the majority of them campesinos for whom land is central to their existence and identity. Most of the guerilla groups are comprised largely of campesinos, including the FARC, and they began on a platform of land reform. They took up arms when they felt they had no other options. This is not to excuse the violence, but to explain a little bit about why land is so central to the conflict and is essential in building peace.

2. The distinction between victim and perpetrator is not always simple. One woman we met with in a Presbyterian Church in the region of Urabá shared a story of how one of her brothers was killed and she was raped by the guerillas. Out of revenge, she said, she joined a paramilitary group because she felt that was the way to avenge her brother and protect herself and her country. Eventually, her parents were able to reach her and convince her to leave the paramilitary. She found her way to the church, which she credits with helping her live a life of nonviolence, but she said she still sometimes thinks about joining the armed group again. Her story is not unique. Just like she joined the paramilitary after experiencing violence at the hands of the guerilla, many guerilla combatants are victims of violence by the military or paramilitaries. Again, this is not to excuse the violence, but it does complicate any simple narrative of good vs. bad. A large portion of the Peace Process is held by the Truth Commission, which seeks to gather these stories of people from all sides of the violence so that people can tell their truth and perhaps move toward healing and reconciliation.

3. Colombia is still at war and social leaders are being killed at an alarming rate. Bilateral Peace Accords does not make peace, not when there are many more than two groups involved in a 50+ years’ war. What’s more, just signing Peace Accords is only the beginning, even between the two groups who did sign–the FARC and the Colombian government. As control of land changes with Peace Accords, violence can spike, and that’s what’s happening in Colombia. What’s more, as the FARC give up control of territory, sometimes other armed groups see an opportunity to move in. One of the most alarming examples of why Colombians said that Colombia was still at war was the number of social leaders being killed. There have already been at least 13 social leaders killed this year. These are people who are fighting for land rights and other justice issues, and many of them are indigenous or Afro-Colombian–people from communities who have long experienced violence in Colombia. One Lutheran human rights leader we met with, Edwin Mosquera, said that Colombians “feel we’re entering into a new wave of violence” with over 400 leader assassinated since the signing of the Accords in 2016 and over 100 since Ivan Duque became president in late 2018. “We don’t want any more dead,” said Mosquera. “Not police, not soldiers, not social leaders.”

4. The threat of US intervention in Venezuela also threatens Colombia. Most of the Colombians we talked with wanted to focus on the Peace Process and what’s happening in Colombia with supporting and implementing the Peace Process. It’s not because they don’t think what’s happening in Venezuela is important, but they have huge work in front of them and want to stay focused. However, Colombia is home to 8 US military bases. They know what it’s like to have US military presence, and our Colombian partners are not eager to invite more of it. They are worried about what will happen in Colombia if Venezuela is further destabilized and worried that, after Venezuela itself, Colombia will be most adversely affected if there is military violence in Venezuela. While at the Presbyterian Colombia Mission Network meeting in Bogotá earlier this month, several partners put together this statement against US military intervention in Venezuela.

5. The people of Colombia—including FARC members and ex-combatants— are committed to peace. It’s the government that is dragging their feet and weighing down the Peace Process in bureaucracy. We met with some of the leaders of the FARC, the guerrilla group that is now a political party. As part of the Peace Accords there is a group made up of 3 FARC leaders and 3 government-appointed representatives. This group of six is tasked with overseeing the implementation of the Peace Accords. We met with the 3 FARC representatives who are eager to push ahead with implementing the Accords, despite imperfections and disappointments, but the new Colombian government of President Duque has been slow to call meetings of this group. So although Duque’s administration has not torn up the Peace Accords as they promised on the campaign trail, they are slowing down the Peace Accords to the point of threatening their continuance. The FARC representatives we met with, however, were emphatic that they will continue to hold up their end of the Accords and remain disarmed and committed to peace.

6. Colombians need us to stand by them during this time. Over and over again, when we met with communities of ex-combatants, government agencies, and others, they said the same thing: the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia has been instrumental in the Peace Process at the national and grassroots level. Our partners in the IPC are known for their commitment to nonviolence and their peacemaking efforts. Even now, leaders in the IPC are being called upon to host tables of dialogue between FARC ex-combatants and Colombian military, between civilians and FARC ex-combatants and even paramilitaires, between people who never imagined sitting at the same table together. This work is necessary, and it is much safer and more stable for our partners if we’re there. For this and so many other reasons, the IPC needs us to stand with them during this time of peace building in Colombia.