Putting an end to war always sounds easier than what it really takes. War leaves an endless number of scars, not only among civilians but also among its combatants.
For Colombia, it has taken a little more than 53 years to end a war that has cost the lives of more than 200,000 people and caused the displacement of six million more.
Like most wars, the one between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the country’s army is a conflict that does not have a true hero or a true villain.
The FARC, originally founded by peasants who were exploited by the ruling classes of Colombia, began as a legitimate rebel army pursuing a noble political purpose. This purpose, however, was overshadowed by decades of violence in which the FARC caused the death of thousands of innocent civilians, not to mention a series of kidnappings and drug-trafficking activities that put the organization on the international community’s list of terrorist groups.
A demonstrator confronts riot police officers during a march in support of Colombian farmers for more government subsidies and greater access to land, which was backed by the then Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Bogota, Colombia, August 29, 2013.
Yet, at the other side stood the National Army of Colombia, the state’s legal armed force which, for decades, collaborated with illegal paramilitary groups to gain control of the country’s land and give it to rich landowners. According to recent estimates by the United Nations, Colombia’s paramilitary groups were responsible for approximately 80 percent of all deaths during the conflict, a number that does not reflect other criminal activities perpetuated by the same groups.
Similar to the FARC, the Colombian state and the paramilitary forces have been synonymous with drug trafficking and human rights abuses, placing the country’s government in very uneven territory when it comes to judging others for acts of violence. Faced with such a picture, who can Colombians really trust when it comes to truth and reparations?
The answer to this question is unknown. The FARC insists they have their own version of history they’ve been wanting to tell for decades and have not been allowed to by the government, whereas the government insists that the FARC – along with other guerrilla groups like the National Liberation Army (ELN) – was the main cause for the five decades of violence.
As a huge step towards reconciliation, a peace treaty was signed between the Colombian government and the FARC on September 26, 2016. Among the treaty’s conditions were guarantees that the FARC would surrender all weapons in exchange for legal political participation in the country’s government and protection to its former members, not to mention economic incentives to allow for a smoother transition to civilian life.
But the treaty had to go through a popular referendum, and in a highly contested vote that included a hefty opposition from radical right-wing and Christian-evangelical groups, 50.2 percent of voters decided to vote against the treaty, an event that marked a surprising defeat for the FARC and the peace-supporting government.
A woman cries after knowing the results of a referendum on whether to ratify a historic peace accord to end a 52-year war between the state and the FARC rebels, in Cali, Colombia, October 2, 2016.
Highly polarized, and amidst hate-filled political speeches pro and con, Colombia finally ratified the peace treaty when Congress itself voted in favor of it – amid protests from opposition parties – on November 29-30 of 2016, officially putting an end to a violent conflict that, paradoxically, popular referendum results had decided to continue.
A little more than a year later, the FARC made history by launching their official political party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (which preserves the old acronym, FARC). Yet their campaign has suffered from acts of violence, some perpetuated by civilians, most others instigated by opposing political parties.
One day before the congressional elections (in which the FARC has ten guaranteed seats to allow them to participate in the government, whether they receive enough popular votes or not), the FARC officially retired from the presidential race, which sets to elect a new president for the country next May, amidst the murder of more than thirty of its members, the obvious lack of security guarantees for the group's political activities and the ill health of their former presidential candidate, Rodrigo Londono (known as ‘Timochenko’).
Rodrigo Londono Echeverri speaks during a press conference in Bogota, February 28, 2018.
This announcement, of course, has put the peace treaty in a limbo, and consequently, the very future of Colombia’s prosperity on hold. Above all, however, the situation has confronted Colombians and international spectators with a very uncomfortable truth, that is, that the search for peace, as a unifying concept, can be as divisive as war itself and may even instigate wars instead of putting an end to them.
The reasons for this paradox are many, but at the core of it shine two words: hate and ignorance.
Hate because peace is impossible if there is no true will to forgive, and true forgiveness means to let go without expecting material compensation or acts of revenge. And ignorance because history has proven that, in the case of Colombia and most other countries ravaged by violence, there is evil and good in those who have participated in the conflict. That is to say, the villains have at times been heroes, and the heroes have at times been villains.
As of this writing, the situation in Colombia does not look good and tensions are running high due to the upcoming elections. Yet, if there is one thing the FARC and the Colombian peace process have already taught the world, it is that no matter what papers or treaties are signed, an end to any war will always be impossible unless there is a true will to include those we used to call "enemies" into our society as "friends" and "brothers".
As FARC’s top commander Rodrigo Londono has said, Colombians have to accept that the former rebels are citizens of the country too, and as such, deserve to be treated with the same guarantees and rights that protect all other citizens. Otherwise, society will face what Colombia is facing right now: a peace agreement that was signed but not truly implemented by its own people.