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Colombia at Peace: What the New Peace Agreement Means to Someone Who Spent 20 Years Undoing the Conflict’s Damage

Published 12/01/2016 by Global Communities

Colombia at Peace: What the New Peace Agreement Means to Someone Who Spent 20 Years Undoing the Conflict’s Damage
By Alejandro Tellez

A young Colombian who is among the 6 million people who have been displaced by the fighting.
I was born in 1964, the same year as FARC, which means that I have never seen a day where Colombia has been truly at peace. I had hoped that by my 53rd birthday, I would see the long and contentious negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC bear fruit; unfortunately the narrow no vote on Colombia’s proposed peace deal dashed those hopes. But now, two months later, the passage of the reworked peace agreement in the Colombian Congress will hopefully represent a new chapter for a country that has seen five decades of continuous violence. For me, this political roller coaster was more than just an historical event to opine on; it was deeply personal. I have spent two decades of my life working to ameliorate the brutal human cost of this conflict.

Those who live in Colombia’s cities – who predominantly voted “No” on the peace deal in the recent referendum – have little direct experience of the conflict. The fifty-two years of fighting in Colombia have changed over time: beginning with a formerly marginalized political party taking up arms in rural regions, then the emergence of the drug trade adding fuel to the fire, and the rise of right-wing paramilitaries operating with tacit, and sometimes overt, governmental support. But there has been one constant: the bulk of the fighting has been in rural regions with the majority of the victims coming from the country’s poorest communities. As a result of the conflict, as well as increasing urbanization seen in most of the global south, people from smaller cities do what they could to leave, with most of them quick to head to the big cities to study or look for work. I took the opposite route, leaving the capital city of Bogota where I grew up to attend a university in Ocana, a smaller city in Colombia’s northeast.
My personal experience with the conflict began not through politics, but rather through the unlikely subject of animal husbandry. I studied this at University, but soon discovered that the actual act of rearing animals did not interest me. What did fascinate me was rural development: the sociology, economics, and politics that underpin rural communities. My path was set. Instead of raising livestock, I would work to assist individuals struggling to make ends meet, families displaced by the conflict, and communities torn apart by the violence.

The sheer human cost born by rural communities cannot be overstated. Exact figures are hard to come by, but of the more than 200,000 victims of the violence, 177,000 were civilians, most of whom lived in poor rural communities. Of special note are those members of civil society, the community leaders, union organizers, and church leaders, who were viciously targeted by combatants, especially right-wing paramilitaries, which viewed anything related to organizing as being inherently related to leftism and the guerillas. As of 2015, more than 6 million people have been displaced by the fighting, giving Colombia the dubious honor of being second only to Syria for having the largest number of internally displaced persons.

This was the environment I entered when I left university and began my career. Working for the Colombian government’s Red de Solidaridad Social (Social Solidarity Network), I assisted victims of the conflict, primarily the displaced. Forced to flee from their communities, and often the land they needed to support themselves, many of these people were in desperate need of support to survive day-to-day, psychosocial support, and to develop alternative livelihoods to help generate income to support their families.

It was around this time that Plan Colombia began to be implemented. Like many Colombians, I was initially cynical. The majority of the assistance went toward military efforts, and only a small amount was allocated to humanitarian assistance. I was concerned about U.S. involvement as well, as many of us in Latin America were all-too-aware of the U.S.’s history of military support. In addition, I saw a significant number of American NGOs take the largest slices of the funding in Plan Colombia, with many of their efforts, while well meaning, often negatively impacted communities and made our work in the government harder.

Which made it all the stranger when I left my job with the Colombian government to work for an American NGO, Global Communities, then known as CHF International. I was recruited by my former boss within government who had made the move first, and who promised me that their work was community-based and grass-roots driven. When I made the change, I promised my new employer that if at any moment I felt my work violated my conscience as a Colombian, I would quit. Thankfully, it never came to that. For the next decade and more I worked in an international organization, in close coordination with the Colombian and U.S. governments and most of all with the rural communities brutalized by conflict. I oversaw programs supporting the displaced, the disabled, and providing psychosocial and livelihoods assistance to those traumatized by conflict. By the end of last year, I had overseen a USAID-supported program focused on the whole Montes de Maria region that helped to link victims of the conflict to Colombian government support. We were able to help nearly 15,000 households and change laws to allow municipal governments to free up funds to support victims. What I am most proud of, however, is the individuals who were able to renew their lives. In the community of Pijiguay, which experienced the trauma of having their elders murdered by a paramilitary group that publicly crushed their skulls with rocks to terrify the villagers, where no one could leave the village or talk to anyone, and where there was no trust in government, I watched a young man, Alfonso, create a radio station that went on to win a national prize across Colombia. Alfonso and thousands of others like him have been able to restart their lives and refresh their communities because of the opportunities peace affords. Today, these people are not “beneficiaries” or just “victims;” they are my friends and countrymen and they are the future of Colombia.

I continued this work until I felt that Colombia was on a sure road to peace, and left my country this year to take a new position in Liberia, another country which suffered under civil conflict and where many young people are recovering from experiences of being child soldiers. Five months later, Colombia’s historic peace deal passed Congress.

How did we get the point where peace was possible, even after the massive setback of the failed referendum? Negotiations began in earnest four years ago, and while they advanced with fits and starts, there are several important factors that help explain why this process was different. Perhaps most importantly, both sides recognize that there is no military solution to the conflict. The Colombian government, in spite of its superior military and support from countries like the U.S., simply cannot prevent guerillas from operating in remote regions that are difficult to access, and even harder to occupy. And FARC has come to terms with its limits, most notably that they do not have the broad popular support, even among many of the country’s poorest, to enact their goal of armed revolution. In a world where politics has become increasingly binary, with opposing sides taking a zero-sum approach to politics, this took incredible courage. It has now been acknowledged that when violence takes on its own logic, drawing in political idealists, pragmatists, landowners, and other groups, gradually everyone becomes a combatant in a war. The lines become blurred, and ultimately everyone suffers. Unfortunately, we see where this leads in Syria, a conflict that has followed and exceeded Colombia’s bloody path. These factors drove both sides to the bargaining table hoping to end this self-perpetuating cycle.

The successful passage of this revised agreement is undoubtedly a success, marking a watershed moment for my country. But as hard as it was to get to this point, the even more challenging work of implementing the peace process must now begin. There are already numerous challenges: the forces that drove the rejection of the referendum, concentrated in urban areas where their only connection to the conflict was through the media, remain a powerful force that could hamper efforts at implementation. There is also always the possibility that many FARC fighters will refuse to give up the fight if the peace agreement is not properly implemented by the government. This move could be exacerbated by recent upticks in violence; we have already seen several killings of activists believed to be perpetrated by former right-wing paramilitary groups.

But in spite of all of these challenges, I remain optimistic. I believe that all Colombians will follow the example of their neighbors in the rural regions, those hardest hit by the fighting, who overwhelming supported the original referendum and are looking to create a lasting peace, not a vindictive one. This was what I saw every day in my work, where brave men and women came together to help strengthen their communities and undo the damage of fifty years of violence. No matter what happens in the corridors of power in the years to come, on the ground, in those communities that have suffered the most, we have a roadmap for the future.
Alejandro Tellez is Global Communities’ Country Director in Liberia and a Colombian peace-builder with over two decades of experience assisting victims of the conflict.