After a rollercoaster week that saw optimism turn to disappointment and uncertainty, Sam Ling Gibson speaks to Colombian victims and ex-combatants. One asks, ‘How can I explain this to my son?’
The signing of the peace agreement by FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, and President Juan Manuel Santos was cause for celebration and fanfare. Shortly afterwards, I met up with Juanita, whose father had been murdered in the conflict. She told me, “I’m thinking about my father today. Today is a day to recognise the sacrifice and lessons of these deaths for that chance to construct a peace in Colombia. Today is to celebrate life.”
Days later, as the country lined up to accept or reject the barely dried ink of the deal, this sense of optimism was shared by many, particularly Colombian victims of the country’s 52-year-old civil war, and by those who have been involved in the fighting.
Before she went off to vote, Viviana, a FARC ex-combatant who demobilised in 2008 said to me, “I’m wearing white today, to show I support peace and want to end this fighting.”
Sadly, as the counting started and the ‘No’ started to take the lead, her elation turned to incredulity. “What’s happening? I don’t understand, the ‘No’ is winning.”
And then as it became clear the majority had voted against the agreement, she was devastated. “I can’t believe it” she said, “this is like a bad dream(…) It’s like when my father was murdered. I can feel that pain again.”
Estefania, who left the FARC seven years ago, looked over at her son who was sitting on the ground crying, speechless. “He doesn’t understand, how can I explain this to him?” she asked. “How can I explain to him that Colombians have chosen to keep fighting?”
That was a question that seemed difficult to answer, but things became clearer as polling analysis came through.
The logical explanation would be that those against the deal would be those individuals and regions who have suffered most due to the 52-year-old conflict, who might see these proposals for transitional justice as too lenient.
However this was very much not the case. Many regions where the conflict has raged voted ‘Yes’ by upwards of 80%. The town of Bojayá, where in 2002, a massacre killed 119 civilians when a FARC mortar accidentally hit a church during a battle, voted a staggering 96% in favour of the deal.
Andrés, another of the many Colombian victims of the conflict who saw family members killed, tried to offer some explanation as to why this might be. He said, “being one of the countless who have lost loved ones in this war, I know the wounds of war are very difficult to heal. It’s tempting to want revenge, but that ‘eye for an eye’ way of thinking will never end.”
Similarly, Bojayá community leaders spoke to El Colombiano, following the result saying that they have had enough sacrifices and have forgiven what happened that day, and pleading for the accords to still be implemented.
Juanita implores the leader of the ‘No’ campaign, Álvaro Uribe – one of the many Colombian victims himself after his father was killed in a botched kidnapping by the FARC in 1983 – to forgive: “Why can’t you forgive like we have and allow this country to begin to heal? Don’t oppose the end of this conflict just because you can’t deal with the past,” she said.
This offers some explanation as to why those affected by the hostilities might vote yes. But what about those less connected to the conflict who voted ‘No’?
All of the Colombian victims and ex-combatants that I spoke to, all agreed that there was a great deal of misinformation spread by Uribe and the ‘No’ campaign.
Viviana pointed out, “most of the ‘No’ voters haven’t directly experienced the conflict or the FARC, only seeing it on the TV.”
Another ex-combatant who demobilised 10 years ago, Julián, explained, “these are the ones least likely to see the potential value of a deal like this, as the portrayal of the FARC in the media is largely negative.” Many TV and radio stations campaigned for the ‘No’ vote throughout.
As Viviana put it, “even some of my family voted ‘No’. They still think that the FARC are very bad people and do not deserve the monthly stipend when they demobilise”.
These are misperceptions that generate real frustrations with the former rebels that I spoke to. “Think of all the child soldiers, and those that started fighting because of poverty and abuse at home”, vented Estefania, to which Julián added, “most Colombian victims and combatants are always dreaming and wanting a new life away from the violence”.
Andrés explains, “I think many of the ‘No’ voters agree with the demobilisation of the FARC, but by focusing on misleading and emotive threats the ‘No’ camp easily persuaded many Colombians who don’t have experiences in the war, that the FARC would get away with murder and go unpunished.”
This is not to say the group doesn’t bear great deal of responsibility in the conflict. Its former fighters are the first to admit this, with Viviana telling me, “the FARC have caused huge harm to the country, but the most important thing is that those crimes against humanity are uncovered and there is truth and reparations for Colombian victims.”
The proposed transitional justice consists of limited sentences of between four and 20 years for those found guilty of war crimes, including state and paramilitary groups. According to the UN, “it is very clear that there will be no impunity for international crimes”. They praised the “recognition of the victims” in the process.
Juanita accepted this trade-off between peace, truth and justice, “the agreement was a good compromise, as it proposed to punish all those responsible, not only the guerrillas. How can that be impunity? […]Uribe has sold this idea using the hatred that he injects into his tweets.”
She rang me a few days later, “look at the news, its true that they [lied] to us,” she says. Indeed, the former manager of the ‘No’ campaign, Juan Carlos Vélez, had disclosed in an interview with La República that they had sought to mislead the public about the deal by presenting often untrue arguments on social media which were based on “impunity” and the FARC taking control of the country.
Uribe’s Twitter account in the run up to the vote is rife with such myths. One reads, “Where will Timochenko serve his time? In the Casa de Nariño?” Another says, “Transitional Justice gives impunity.”
‘No’ campaign incited ‘indignation’
In the wake of the ‘No’ vote, an interview with Juan Carlos Vélez in La República has sparked outrage. The manager of the ‘No’ campaign spoke frankly about the strategy to stir indignation and to target different groups of society with messages designed to rile them up.
“In channels for middle and upper estratos we relied on the lack of impunity, eligibility and tax reform, while in lower estratos we focused on subsidies.”
“In the coast we personalised the message that they would become Venezuela.”
He continued, “In the eight municipalities of Cauca, we spent Saturday night on a victim centred propaganda.”
When asked why they’d distorted the campaign message, he said “It was the same thing that the ‘Yes’ did.”
The lawyer and politician went on to explain that their campaign had been funded through COP$1,300 million, which they had raised from individuals and companies.
His words quickly went viral, and the repercussions came at equal speed. Vélez said that his words had been taken out of context, but nonetheless apologised and resigned.
Uribe distanced himself from his long time ally, saying he would never ask a colleague to lie for him.
The Fiscalía announced that it would open an investigation into whether Vélez had committed voter fraud, which is a criminal offence.
I told Juanita that this news was too late as Veléz’s stated strategy of “appealing to rage so people vote angrily,” had already paid off.
“No”, she corrected me “it’s not too late. This challenge is only just beginning […] we have to continue and see that peace is agreed.”
Santos has found this out the hard way. To achieve peace, he told the BBC in 2015, “You have to be able to convince people to change their minds and their attitudes and ways of approaching the enemy and that is much more difficult”.
This is where most Colombian victims, ex-combatants, and the president share a subdued optimism. They are also united in the belief that dialogue, whether in Havana between belligerent parties, or neighbours around the country, is the only way to achieve this transition to peace.
As Estefania passionately argues, “As the past 60 years have shown us, peace isn’t constructed in the trenches of battlefields, it is only done through listening to others, through forgiveness, through accepting the other, we can only have peace through dialogue. Now we must look at what unites us, not what divides us.”
Sam Ling Gibson lectures on conflict resolution and diplomacy in Bogotá. He has been involved in various research projects addressing the challenges of a post-conflict Colombia.