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How will FARC peace talks play out in rural Colombia?

Successful peace talks could mean the end of nearly five decades of fighting between the FARC and the Colombian government, when civilians and rural communities were often hit the hardest.

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent / October 18, 2012

Members of Colombia's government team for the peace talks with Colombia's Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), Humberto de la Calle Rangel (r.), stands next to Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo (c.), as he waves before boarding a plane to Oslo, at a military airport in Bogotá, Colombia, Oct. 16, 2012.

William Fernando Martinez/AP

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Corinto, Colombia

The hairline cracks in the white walls of Victor Salas’s concrete house tell the recent history of guerrilla violence in this southwestern Colombian town.

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Every time a car bomb explodes near the police station several blocks away, each time a grenade gets thrown at a nearby shop, a new crack appears, Mr. Salas says.

Cracks run throughout the otherwise flawless house.

Corinto is one of the towns that have been hit hardest by a recent surge in attacks by the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, ahead of peace talks with the Colombian government. Set to launch this week in Oslo, the talks could put an end to nearly five decades of conflict between the Colombian government and what started as a Marxist-inspired peasant uprising, but which has left tens of thousands dead and millions more displaced.

Many analysts are calling the meeting Colombia's best chance for peace in the history of the conflict. Three previous attempts in the past 30 years ended in bloodshed and violence. But the new balance of forces in the conflict – the government possesses a renewed legitimacy and the rebels are at their weakest in decades – has led the two side to lay out a concrete five-point agenda. The agenda includes issues discussing disarmament and the possibility of political participation for the demobilized guerrillas.

“We have to accept that it won’t be easy to end a half century of armed conflict,” says Alejo Vargas, a political science professor at the National University. “But despite some uncertainty, which is normal in this type of process, there is room for optimism.”

But the optimism surrounding the talks, which will start in Oslo and then move to Havana, doesn't mean the peace negotiations will move forward without challenges. Some observers are concerned about issues of transitional justice, the participation of broader Colombian society, and that continued fighting could derail the entire process.

'Keep your head down'

For the residents of Corinto and other municipalities throughout the Colombian countryside who have lived in the shadow of the FARC for decades, it’s hard to imagine the mountains and jungles without a guerrilla presence.  In the mountainside village of Calandaima, living near FARC guerrillas is “normal,” says a stout, ruddy-cheeked woman who gave her name only as Estela.

“They don’t go around in uniform anymore like they used to, but everyone knows who they are,” she says, adding that FARC guerrillas often try to entice teenage boys and girls to join their ranks.

“They use psychology on them to convince them,” says Estela.  She is grateful that none of her three young sons have joined, but says she knows plenty of villagers who have.

Local nongovernmental organizations that work with the rural population here say many boys and girls are not just enticed, but taken against their will. Salas heads a municipal office that receives complaints about rights abuses. He says few peasants are willing to denounce the forced recruitment or other abuses by the FARC for fear of retaliation. “If you want to stay, you keep your head down,” he says. 

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