Former foes join for peace

Veteran soldiers and rebels in Colombia are working together for peace – a model for the rest of the nation.

Oscar Buitrago was an Army captain whose career ended when a rebel landmine blew off his foot. Alberto Cuellar was a guerrilla commander whose face was torn apart in a police ambush.

Like thousands of other Colombians, the two men saw their lives shattered by an internal conflict that has dragged on for nearly four decades.

But Mr. Buitrago and Mr. Cuellar have left behind the bitterness and pain of war and are now working together for peace.

They are the founders of Con Fe Paz (With Faith, Peace or CFP) a group that brings together ex-soldiers and demobilized rebels – all of whom were seriously injured in the conflict but are now united in a desire to find reconciliation.

The idea is simple: If wounded veterans can make peace with the very people who caused their injuries, so can the rest of this broken nation.

"Reconciliation starts with an act of forgiveness: a handshake, a hug, a show of feeling for your enemy," says Buitrago.

Earlier this year, negotiations with both of the country's largest rebel armies collapsed, and last week's landslide victory by hard-line presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe Vélez was seen by some as evidence that many Colombians no longer believe that a peaceful settlement is possible. With so much money at stake in the cocaine trade, many see the laying down of arms by rebels as wishful thinking.

But as the fighting threatens to escalate, peace activists say that Buitrago and Cuellar's experience show that an alternative to violence exists.

"It's an example for the rest of the country," says Ana Teresa Bernal, the director of Redepaz, a national network of peace programs. "They prove that reconciliation is not impossible."

According to Ms. Bernal, CFP differs from other peace groups because each of its 400 members has an intimate knowledge of the horrors of war.

"They have seen the pain and fear of war, and that gives them a moral authority that nobody else has," she says.

At their office in downtown Bogotá, the two men keep a bundle of fading snapshots as a reminder of the life they left behind.

One photograph shows Cuellar in his days with the Popular Liberation Army, or EPL. Straddling a dirt bike, he wears a red rebel armband on his shoulder and a revolver on his belt.

In another shot, Buitrago poses Rambo-like on a rain-swept hillside, brandishing an assault rifle in one hand and a hand grenade in the other.

"That's old history now," says Buitrago, turning away from the photographs.

But there are other reminders that cannot be so easily ignored: Buitrago needed three years of therapy and surgery on his leg, and now walks with a prosthetic foot.

Cuellar still carries 28 bullet fragments in his face from the police ambush that almost cost him his life.

After 18 years as an insurgent, he laid down his weapons in a 1991 peace deal, and soon after, he formed an organization to help other wounded ex-guerrillas.

Buitrago, meanwhile, set up a support group for landmine victims. When the two men met, they realized that both would benefit if they joined forces.

Now CFP gives help to ex-combatants from both sides, offering employment advice, legal aid, and emotional support. But with limited funding and a tiny one-room office, their work is not easy. Many businesses are unwilling to take on disabled staff, while others flatly refuse to give jobs to demobilized rebels.

Ex-soldiers receive a small pension, but often the payments are barely enough to cover the cost of medication. Demobilized guerrillas still face the threat of assassination by right-wing death squads or even by their former comrades. But the biggest challenge is the bitterness, hatred, and fear caused by the trauma of war.

As a 19-year-old Army conscript, Richard Benavides lost his foot to a rebel landmine. Now, 12 years later, he admits that when he heard of CFP, his curiosity to meet former adversaries was offset by persistent feelings of anger and pain.

"At first, I wanted nothing to do with it," Mr. Benavides says. "They were the ones who damaged me. I thought that if I met one, I'd want to kill him. But I wanted to try and forget all that happened. I wanted to get rid of the hate inside."

At the first few meetings, Benavides felt so uncomfortable that he found it hard to even speak to the former rebels.

But after three or four sessions, he started to see group members in a new light. Instead of soldiers and guerrillas, they were all victims of the war.

"Why should I hate them? I'm not in the Army any more," he says. "I don't need to fear anyone."

Veterans often discover that their own lives closely mirror the experiences of their one-time foes.

The armed groups promise an exciting life to poor youngsters with few other opportunities, but recruits on both sides soon realize that life on the frontline is worse than they could have imagined.

"It's run for your life and kill or be killed – the same thing for us all," says Benavides.

Although CFP has held several large-scale events including former combatants and war widows, most encounters are casual meetings at the office.

For years after demobilization, Benavides, like many veterans, had felt paranoid and afraid and at night had dreams of bloody combat. But since meeting his former enemies, both the nightmares and the overall fear have disappeared.

"This was the therapy I needed," he says. "Something has been mended."

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