War-weary Colombians plead for peace

Thousands are expected to march Sunday to urge an end to 40 years of strife.

In the packed gymnasium of one of the capital's wealthy neighborhoods, rock bands blast songs with lyrics like, "Sow the seeds of peace, not more land mines."

The concert is part of Week for Peace in Colombia, a national initiative by peace and nonviolence organizations that will include prayer, Bible studies and peace poetry contests. Organizers expect hundreds of thousands of Colombians to march Sunday to demand an end to 40 years of civil war.

"So often when you tell other people you're Colombian, they look at you like you're different or suspicious, and it's because of this incomprehensible violence, and I suppose the drugs," says Rolando, a student at the concert. "We're telling ourselves and the world this has to change."

Week for Peace is an effort to pressure the government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the country's largest insurgent organization, as they head into Sept. 22 negotiations for a cease-fire.

"There is an irresistible strength to a country demanding peace," says Ana Teresa Bernal, director of Redepaz, or Peace Network, one of the program's organizers. "The march symbolizes that strength, and demonstrates our faith that humane and dignified life is possible in Colombia."

For four decades Marxist guerrillas have been fighting Colombia's government, for much of that time in marginalized rural areas. While other insurgencies in Latin America died out with the cold war, Colombia's only intensified as the guerrilla organizations built up income as associates of Colombia's cocaine traffickers. The paramilitary groups entered the fray over the past decade, first as security forces for rural landowners, but increasingly as an independent militia with its own agenda, at times linked to the Armed Forces. Both the guerrillas and paramilitary organizations have reaped income by kidnapping.

The peace movement reflects how a once-distant war fought between an Army held in low esteem by the public and rural guerrillas thought to be of little real threat has tragically escalated.

This year alone at least 25 children have been killed and more than 200 kidnapped. In the first six months of the year, more than 1,000 civilians perished in massacres. In August, Colombia was stunned when six elementary school children on a summer field trip were shot dead as they marched through the woods. They had been mistaken for guerrillas by government troops. Last week, millions of horrified Colombians watched TV footage showing a policeman being killed by a bomb-thrower during protests against President Clinton's visit to Cartagena.

Incidents like these have prompted peace activists to demand that the Army, the guerrillas, and the paramilitaries leave civilians out of the conflict. Some observers see this as a nave demand from civil society, especially the middle and upper social classes. It's a reflection, observers say, of a country that has never given the Army the support it needs to require all sides to enter negotiations.

Colombian society's "antimilitarism" has made it impossible for armed forces and police to stop the rise of the guerrillas and paramilitaries, says political analyst Alfredo Rangel Surez. Writing in the Bogot daily El Tiempo, he says Colombians' aversion to supporting the Army and other representatives of state authority is what forced the government to turn to the United States for military assistance.

Peace Week coordinator Bernal says pro-peace organizers maintain an independent position that allows them to denounce all sides that commit violence.

In 1997, 10 million Colombians voted in a grass-roots peace referendum. More recently, millions have marched in antikidnapping rallies chanting, No Ms! ("No More!").

In the 1998 presidential race, all three major contenders called for peace negotiations. Since his election President Andrs Pastrana has pushed forward with the goal of negotiations.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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