Colombia seeks peace in the middle of war

In a rare interview with the foreign press, Eduardo Pizarro sheds light on reconciliation efforts.

Eduardo Pizarro has one foot in the past and another in the future.

The brother of a guerrilla leader slain by right-wing paramilitaries, Mr. Pizarro has been charged with a nearly impossible task in the brutal 42-year Colombian conflict: making peace in the middle of war.

As head of a newly established "reparation and reconciliation" commission established by President Alvaro Uribe, Pizarro envisions wide-ranging work that will mainly revolve around compensating tens of thousands of the war's victims. But skeptics question whether the commission can actually bring lasting reconciliation to war-torn Colombia.

"To clear up the truth in the middle of war is very difficult," says Camilo Gonzalez, the head of a Bogotá nongovernmental organization called INDEPAZ that is critical of the peace process.

But Pizarro deflects the criticism, attributing the commission's relative quiet since being created in October to its study of truth commissions in other countries, including Argentina, Chile, Peru, and South Africa.

"We are going to surprise the country," he says in one of his first interviews with the foreign press, suggesting that the commission's mandate might be broader than many anticipate.

While thousands of paramilitaries are laying down their weapons as part of peace negotiations with the government, their enemies - the left-wing guerrillas known as the FARC - are still fighting relentlessly against the government.

And until the fighting ceases, the 12-member commission will not issue a report on what happened to the victims of the paramilitaries, who are responsible for some of the war's worst atrocities. The 20,000-member paramilitary army, which agreed to negotiate with Mr. Uribe three years ago - mainly because they feared extradition to the US on drug-trafficking charges - is set to fully demobilize by mid-February.

Observers say such a report, a key component of peace commissions in other countries, might give the FARC a military advantage and also reveal long-standing links with the government it has sought to conceal.

"The biggest murders in Colombia have been authorized from the desks of Bogotá and Medellin," claims Mr. Gonzalez, referring to the capital and another Colombian city.

How best to help war's victims

For his part, Pizarro is quick to dismiss suggestions that there will be hefty financial reparations to the victims.

"The resources are scarce and the number of victims is gigantic," says Pizarro - perhaps 50,000 or 60,000, including victims of the paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas, he estimates.

Ivan Cepeda, the leader of one of the largest victims' rights groups in Colombia, says that at least 10 percent of Colombia's 42 million people have been touched directly by the war. His group, the Movement of Victims of State Crimes, has filed 14,400 complaints against the paramilitaries with Colombia's attorney general's office.

"To say that there are 50,000 victims of the war is absurd," argues Mr. Cepeda, whose group has protested the "Justice and Peace" law that established the commission.

The Constitutional Court is considering challenges to the law, which offers paramilitaries reduced sentences in exchange for demobilizing, and it could be ruled illegal.

"From the perspective of victims, this law doesn't take us into account," says Cepeda, whose senator father was slain by paramilitaries.

Pizarro says the "first thing" the commission wants to do is "put the association of victims at the heart of our work." But in order to do that, Cepeda says, the commission must address two crucial things - meaningful land reform and political rights for victims, many of whom have been killed for their political activities.

"There is reparation that has a social and collective character," Cepeda says.

Pizarro envisions giving access to education or health care for widows of victims' children and providing help in locating the "disappeared." While a report similar to the one prepared by Argentina's truth commission about the fate of its some 30,000 "disappeared" would be impossible to produce during war, says Pizarro, the commission does plan to create a national database of victims' names, including the FARC's victims.

Financing reparations - who should pay?

In addition, an integral part of the commission will be the reparation fund that distributes compensation to victims. Some have suggested a waiver of foreign debt by willing governments to finance the fund; others say a significant slice will have to come from the national budget. But human rights groups and victims question why the paramilitaries, made rich by their involvement in narco-trafficking, can't shoulder the burden.

Pizarro says he will include victims of FARC violence in the reparation scheme, though the rebel group won't be paying reparations.

Pizarro envisions a document detailing the origins of the paramilitary phenomenon. He rejects the idea of sensational public hearings in which victims confront the alleged abuser as in South Africa. But he says there have been some private and "very painful" meetings between victims and perpetrators in the cities of Medellin and Cali.

"They have ended with tears and with hugs," he confides.

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