In Colombia, peacemakers rally to save a peace deal

After a few former guerrillas declared a return to armed conflict, the response showed the depth of the desire to save a 2016 peace pact.

Kelly Martinez, former rebel of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), washes the dishes at a reintegration camp in Tierra Grata, Colombia Aug. 3.

Peace is often defined merely as an absence of war. In Colombia, which three years ago approved a pact to end a half-century of civil war, peace has been a daily activity. It ranges from forgiveness of former fighters who lay down their arms to reparations for the war’s victims. Yet in the past week, after a group of ex-combatants announced a return to armed conflict, the peacemaking has been particularly active.

A chorus of individuals and organizations came forward to counter the call to rearm by a small group of senior commanders from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The group’s leader, Luciano Marín – better known by his nom de guerre, Iván Márquez – had declared a “new chapter” in the armed struggle for a communist society. Wearing military garb and holding a rifle in a video posted on Aug. 29, he accused the government of “betrayal” for allowing the killing of some 130 ex-rebels.

The killings have indeed been a disappointment as have many unfulfilled promises of the peace pact, which laid out reforms over 15 years. But the advances under the pact are also becoming very visible, such as more land titles for farmers, the presence of ex-FARC leaders in Congress, and a reduction in the production of coca, the principal ingredient in cocaine.

In what may be the strongest rebuke, the former leader of FARC, Rodrigo Londoño, better known as Timochenko, said that 95% of the 13,000 ex-FARC members stand firm with the pact. “Those of us who want peace are many more and we have the obligation not to faint,” he said. He added that the government’s breaches in implementing the pact must not be met with a breach in the peace.

“We cannot spend another 50 years in useless confrontations,” he said. “Future generations would not forgive us.”

The government’s former chief peace negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, called on the well-organized groups of war victims to again rally for peace. They played a crucial role during the negotiations from 2012 to 2016. “We ask Colombians to think about future victims, those we must avoid,” Mr. de la Calle said.

Perhaps the strongest citizen movement to uphold the pact grew out of a discussion on a WhatsApp chatroom to defend the pact. The group, known as Let’s Defend Peace, now has over 30,000 members, from former guerrillas to retired generals. It has led peace marches and petition signings to compel government action.

The group shows “remarkable persistence, creative flair, and refusal to take no for an answer with which – despite every adversity – Colombians pull together to build a better society,” says Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Washington-based Latin America Working Group.

Much of the enthusiasm to keep the peace comes from the hard work during the negotiations to find a balance between forgiveness and justice for ex-combatants. As John Jairo Hoyos, a member of Congress whose father was killed by FARC, explained recently: “My heart was filled with hatred for more than 10 years.” But during the negotiations, he was invited him to speak to FARC commanders. “We yelled at them, called them names, we cried for hours in that dialogue. They asked for forgiveness and promised to do no more harm. We came out determined to build peace and put aside the past,” he said.

Peace in Colombia is now less of a negative noun about war and more of a positive verb about reconciliation.

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