FARC peace talks: Colombia struggles to pinpoint 'who is a victim'

The FARC and the Colombian government have reached peace talk deals on half of their six-point agenda. No issue has sparked such heated debate as the compensation and recognition of victims.

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) lead negotiator Ivan Marquez (l.) and fellow negotiator Jesus Santrich (R) spoke during a conference in Havana Aug. 12. The first round of testimony as to who should be considered a victim in the conflict is taking place there this weekend.

Ever since leftist rebel and government negotiators began peace talks to end Colombia's half-century of conflict, they have claimed that victims are at the center of the process. But as negotiators turn to compensation for those who suffered at the hands of guerrillas, Colombia is asking itself just who should be considered a victim.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government, which began peace talks in November 2012,  have reached deals on three points of their six-point agenda: land reform, political participation for the rebels, and drug trafficking. However, no issue has sparked such heated debate as the compensation and recognition of victims.  

On Saturday, peace negotiators will begin hearing testimony from a group of victims of the conflict, hand-picked by a commission of delegates from the United Nations, the Roman Catholic Church, and Colombia's National University after a series of public forums. They will include not only victims of the FARC, but of other parties in the conflict – such as right-wing paramilitaries that emerged to battle the guerrillas, and state actors. Many who suffered from kidnappings, forced displacements, disappearances, and attacks at the hands of the FARC feel that their voices are being drowned out. And some – like soldiers held captive for more than a decade by the rebels – have been told they cannot participate at all. 

"The issue of victims in a conflict that is political in nature will inevitably be political as well," says Maria Camila Moreno, director of the Colombia office of the International Commission on Transitional Justice. 

Combatant vs. victim

The FARC rejects the notion that members of the military and police should be considered victims here, because these individuals were combatants, and should be treated as such.

If the soldiers and police held by the FARC are accepted as victims, then "guerrillas who are in prison and have health problems should also be treated as victims," the rebel leadership said in a statement.

Ms. Moreno says any individuals – regardless of their status as a combatant or civilian – are victims if they have suffered war crimes. This includes soldiers held in inhumane conditions and rebels who may have been tortured at the hands of state agents.  "But politically, that's hard for many people to accept," she says.

Gen. Luis Mendieta spent nearly 12 years as a hostage of the FARC, bound by chains in jungle rebel camps. "We have asked to be recognized as victims of the FARC, but they want to make us invisible," Mendieta said at a forum of FARC victims who spoke before Congress on Thursday.

And while the FARC has tried to block the participation of some of its most high-profile captives, many of those who will be in Havana in the first round of testimony this weekend were victimized not by the FARC, but by other parties in the conflict. Many Colombians feel that is muddying the process.

"What does a victim of the paramilitaries have to say to the FARC?" asked Amparo Bustos, whose 72-year-old father was kidnapped by the FARC in 2000 and was never heard from again.

"I had hoped that when they reached this point [in the negotiations] it would be our moment. But we are having to fight to be heard," Ms. Bustos said at the congressional forum.

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