Why peace hopes endure in Colombia

A proposed peace deal with rebels failed at the polls, but the pact’s main supporters – victims of Colombia’s long war – know that forgiveness lies at the heart of peacemaking.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (R) hugs a victim of the Bojaya massacre that occurred in 2002, Oct. 9.

In the long history of peace deals, the one negotiated to end Colombia’s 52-year war has presented an unusual twist, one with a lesson on the role of forgiveness in postwar reconciliation.

By a slim margin in an Oct. 2 referendum, the Colombian deal was voted down. The “no” vote was mostly in areas that have been least affected by the war’s violence. Those voters reflected a view that the proposed settlement should have imposed harsher punishments on the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

But here’s the twist. The strongest support for the pact came in those parts of the country that have suffered the most in the conflict.

The victims of the war, in other words, were satisfied with the deal’s emphasis on reparations and truth-telling by rebels about their past atrocities in exchange for lesser time in confinement. With the possibility of the war continuing, victim groups were willing to accept the proposed leniency for contrite rebels – and to offer forgiveness.

This amazing grace may be one reason why Colombians on both sides, despite the pact’s defeat, have rallied to keep peace talks alive. FARC leaders, too, say they will honor aspects of the rejected pact, such as releasing child soldiers.

In the wake of the vote, the deal’s leading opponent, former President Álvaro Uribe, met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to seek a new approach for fresh negotiations with FARC. The two former political allies had not met in nearly six years. Now, in a peacemaking of their own, they must find a different balance between retribution and forgiveness in any new deal.

Despite his loss in the plebiscite, Mr. Santos’s approach was reinforced a few days later when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his dedicated and nuanced approach to ending the war. After winning the award, he visited the village of Bojayá, scene of a large massacre by rebels in 2002. More than 90 percent of residents there voted for the settlement, perhaps because FARC leaders have twice offered apologies to them.

During his visit, Santos again noted what he has learned during years of negotiations: “The victims have taught me that the capacity to forgive can overcome hatred and rancor.”

His point was reflected in comments by one of the victims in Bojayá to a New York Times reporter. “In order to live in peace, you have to disarm your heart,” Rosa Mosquera said. “You store a lot of bitterness there, a lot of hate. And when there’s a lot of hate in your heart, you’re unable to forgive someone. But when you disarm your heart, you can go on, you can give a lot of love.”

Colombia may now face a period of uncertainty in the search for a new deal. Despite the referendum’s result, the momentum for peace has endured, in large part because the victims see a possible end to the conflict, perhaps even someday an end to seeing themselves as victims. They are the most eager to reclaim peace for Colombia – and peace in their hearts.

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