It was a Tuesday at the end of the month; a 28th of February not to forget. The context was festive in almost all the Caribbean region of Colombia, and especially in the North, where the Carnival of Barranquilla exudes a joyful air to all of the coastal area. That day, the Citizens Commissions of Reconciliation and Peace of the Caribbean coast would have a meeting closer to their objectives as civil society: to nurture spaces of constructive dialogue, peace-building, and reconciliation. This time the appointment was in Fonseca, La Guajira, more precisely in the rural village of Pondores, one of the community areas within the Colombia peace agreements for the relocation of FARC guerrillas returning to civilian life.
The day began with anticipation, the agenda was arranged, and expectations were high. Commission members, made up of victims’ advocates, women’s’ rights activists, human rights defenders, pastors, direct victims and others from civil society, wanted to know the situation of the FARC community areas, verify stories of lack of follow-through in different logistical agreements by the government, and hear the commitment of the FARC to the peace process, not just on paper. The points were serious and necessary for the Commission members to continue their work in different territories, but for some, feelings of tenderness arose from learning that a guerrilla had recently given birth on the site.
Gradually the members of the provinces of Cordoba, Sucre, Atlántico, Magdalena, Cesar and hosts from La Guajira met at an established place. About 9 in the morning they set forth with their minds and hearts anxious due to the impending appointment. The road from the thriving town of Fonseca to the meeting place was fast, less than 30 minutes from the city limit to the first white poster with green edge and distinctive signs of the national police which welcomes you to the “Transition Point to Normalization.” Next to appear was the Colombian army camp, then the United Nations contingency as guarantors of the process, and finally the area known as the FARC reception area, which is an open space where some of the representatives of the FARC may come into contact with the civilian population and the media.
We expected to see many restrictions, requisitions, reviews, monitoring, formal faces and hard looks which is normal for these scenarios. Instead, what was found surpassed the expectations of all: friendly looks, gentle faces, and a disproportionate attentiveness. From the moment of our first contact with the guerrillas at the front gate, the Citizens Commissions for Reconciliation and Peace were met with greetings, welcomes, a cold drink, and the happy, excited presence of two beautiful, healthy, and well-kept dogs. Our glances went in every direction. There was so much to take in: a hand-painted sign promoting peace, the construction, recently planted flowers, a small plot of green tomatoes, an open air kitchen, and visitors here and there. The physical space was green, cool and typical of a farm of that region with cleanliness and care of the environment which was striking and made us want to not mar it with garbage or litter.
The ramada with white seats was awaiting us. Other people, from a national television channel and a foreign journalist documenting the life in the camps, were in small groups under the shade of the mango trees. Further away we noticed logistics groups and other professionals in their distinctive, official vests of their organizations. Very close to where we were sitting we could see what would soon be the lodging areas. Under a harsh sun were workers in hard-hats, masons, and FARC members in military fatigues, but with colorful t-shirts wrapped around their heads like turbans to protect them from the sun and dust. Everyone was united in their construction labor and although the responsibility is the state´s and the work had been contracted, the collaboration between everyone was evident.
After a presentation on the Citizens Commissions, the conversation began. Beyond the dialogues or the information given with conviction about their cause, the people who were there were very similar to those of us who had come as civil society. There was “Anastasio” with his Dalmatian named Gotas (Droplets), a specimen worthy of any dog show, and “Angel” with Beethoven, a big, white, furry dog who snuggled next to his guardian, a young, slender man with indigenous features. Behind us was another group who dedicated themselves to cooking and preparing drinks as one does when they have guests and want to attend them well. Going back and forth to make sure everything was in order was ´Yeni,´ a youthful blonde who has been with the guerrilla for 17 years, who treated everyone with geniality, politeness, and affection. Whenever she spoke she showed her joyful smile and her bright eyes. During wartime she operated the radio and was in charge of internal communications, and now ‘that things have changed´ she aspires to study Communications/Journalism.´
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The hours passed between questions, constructive dialogue, concerns, and debate between the parties, and a great need to clear up doubts to which “El Profe” (The Prof) answered with reason, information, and the FARC´s version of the recent history of the conflict in Colombia. At his side was “Ricardo,” who sat in silence, nodding his head or smiling like a FARC Don Quixote. The organized, reasoned, and informed discourse was respectfully interrupted by members of the CCRP, who made clear that as civil society, we wanted to know about the intention of the FARC to comply with the peace process, the need for reconciliation, the role of academia in the peace process, and the need to compensate the victims, among other topics. We were all seeking answers to overcome the prejudices we had as a generation that has not lived one day of peace in our lifetimes. In the reflection and evaluation at the end of the day “El Profe” commented that our group was not what they had expected, that the CCRP were obviously informed and knowledgeable about the peace process, and with a level that went beyond simple information. Instead it was a group that proposed things and showed its discontent or disagreement, but that gave solutions and proposals.
After a recess, the moment for lunch arrived, which surprised everyone because time passed quickly and no one realized that the stew being cooked nearby was for our group. With the expertise of a restaurant we were served a nutritious beef stew with rice and a refreshment in green bowls and white plates. Everyone looked at each other, but accepted the hospitality and settled in among the ornamental plants, the green tomatoes that grew in the garden, and the shade of the trees. As the CCRP we had brought gestures of solidarity with us in the form of some food provisions and drinks, but what we received was a showing of community (common-unity). Although the guerrillas had expressed in their talk that they had problems in the food supply, and had received food in bad condition, expired, or in small amounts from the government, they shared with us what they had.
While the Agape, or spiritual love, was given, another of our purposes of the visit was fulfilled. To see the reality of the place, and to directly verify the advances in terms of services and construction, which we must say were obviously slow and behind schedule, joined other complaints they made about materials and designs. But there, at the end of the construction site, we found ourselves again with peace; this time with the name of a woman. There, in two tiny prefabricated homes, life was being reborn. In one of the tiny rooms was Esperanza (Hope), the woman who in early January gave birth to a girl who she named Desiree (which means Desire or a desired person). She told us that she was happy because she could embrace and enjoy this small being (unlike a previous son about whom she did not want to talk), an experience she mentioned that many of her comrades in arms would like to have, but due to their age cannot. The baby was rosy-cheeked, healthy and calm in the arms of her 41 year old mother who has spent twenty-seven years in the guerrillas. Still wearing her shiny, black boots, olive green military pants, and white t-shirt, she looked maternal and happy. Her slender figure, with arms shaped by work, framed a mother with firm, black eyes that looked tenderly at the little one. In the next room, the smell of baby seems to have infected her neighbor, a young and beautiful dark-skinned woman seven months into her own pregnancy. At her side in the hot, pre-fabricated house made of plasterboard, sat her partner who was furiously fanning them.
Back with our group as the day was coming to an end, “Anastasio,” the young caretaker of Gotas the Dalmatian, read an official communique of the FARC which had just seconds before arrived. He read with a paused, but energetic, voice that in spite of all expectations, the FARC would continue with the established time-line stipulated in the Havana peace accords regarding the implementation process, and specifically, the handing over of their weapons. Among the group there were applauses, smiles, and a renewed sense of hope. On that note, our gathering with the FARC ended with this showing of willingness to continue on the road to peace and reconciliation.
After all we experienced those few days in La Guajira, including meetings with the municipal authorities about the Municipal Peace Councils and the visit with the FARC, as Citizens Commissions for Reconciliation and Peace we know that the road to peace will not be easy. It has never been easy, but we feel that this rapprochement with the guerrillas was a good start. After initial mixed feelings, rectifying the myths that some held of the guerrillas being “monsters,” of recognizing the humanness in all of the armed actors, of the awareness that there are half-truths on all sides, we will continue building a route that will show us effective peace¬-building actions to pursue as civil society. That is why we exist, and as Citizens Commissions for Reconciliation and Peace we dream, we yearn, we work and we live for the peace and reconciliation, so that not one more life is lost to war and that all lives be for peace.