“The peace agreement is now the political platform”, announced FARC leader, Timochenko, on Tuesday 27th June, to a cheering audience of FARC ex-combatants and ex-prisoners. The location was the Mariana Paez TVZN, transitional zone, in Mesetas (province of Meta in Central Colombia); the occasion was a reconciliation ceremony marking the hand-over of personal weapons by FARC activists. Against a backdrop of the filmed hand-over, UN Head of Mission, Jean Arnault, confirmed the receipt of 7,132 guns that are currently in sealed containers, guarded by the UN Mission. They are due to be destroyed on the 1st August. In return for the arms, individual certificates were presented to each FARC combatant to confirm the transition to civilian life. One young couple carried their recently born infant to accompany them on this journey.
The landmark event signalled the end of a 53 year old war waged by FARC against the sharp inequities of Colombia. As in all military struggles what once seemed simple to some spun into the complexities of ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ violence perpetrated by all parties to the conflict. FARC’s declared political commitment is still overshadowed by the 260,000 plus deaths and over 7 million people displaced, alongside a Colombian diaspora that has a global span. Added to the mix was the impact of US foreign policy in the years after 11 September 2001, and a series of frustrated peace talks over the years. FARC is the largest, but by no means the only, militant armed group active in Colombia, which is also plagued by the violence of drug gangs.
Changing the Narrative
What was remarkable during the speeches from the stage in Mesetas was the determination that the 245 page peace agreement would be implemented. A coterie of FARC senior leaders sat in serried rows to hear Timochenko (Rodrigo Londoño) declare – “This day is not the end of FARC, but the end of the armed uprising of 53 years”. This commitment to end the use of arms was accompanied by the demand that “All political persecution must end today”, a statement that was greeted by applause. Colombian President Santos responded by describing the gathering as ‘historic’, and confirming that “Our peace is real and irreversible”; adding, that the voluntary surrender of weapons was the best news in Colombia in 50 years. Amongst the witnesses in attendance were the EU Special Envoy to the Colombian Peace Process, Eamon Gilmore, sitting alongside diplomatic representatives from Cuba, Norway, Ireland and the UN.
As Timochenko handed the microphone over to a white-shirted President Santos, gifts were exchanged and hundreds of small, lemon hued mimosa butterflies were released. They fluttered their way skywards, tiny specks against the sombre green of the surrounding mountains. Some even wavered against the trio of flags flapping from bamboo poles – the Colombian national flag; a white flag of peace and the red hammer and sickle flag of the PCC – the clandestine Colombian Communist Party, espoused by FARC members. Many of the latter wore white tee-shirts, emblazoned with the message ‘FARC – EP: Paz con Justiciar Social’. The challenge for FARC is to translate the slogan into a political following.
It is clear that much work still needs to be done to build general confidence in a peace agreement that was negotiated in Havana and brought home to Colombia with the ringing acclaim of the international community. A matter of months later (October 2016) the plebiscite on the agreement was defeated by a waver thin majority (some 50,000 votes) in a referendum that attracted a very low turn-out (38%). It was noticeable that those areas that had born the brunt of the conflict voted in support of the peace agreement in contrast to the urban centres. A revised accord was introduced two months later and is being implemented despite the vociferous opposition of political forces that dub it ‘the wrong kind of peace’. A forthcoming presidential election in 2018 adds a cutting edge to the situation.
Notwithstanding the challenges, FARC members have been gathered into 22 cantonments (such as the Mariana Paez TVZN) and 6 camps across Colombia. There they wait for the implementation of agreed transitional justice provisions, effective ‘reincorporation’ and the realisation of promised rural reform and land access. All measures that require political will and resources. Pastor Alape, a FARC spokesperson, underlined the urgency of developing alternate forms of income generation. The soon to be operative ECOMUN – an agency to support cooperative development – is one such initiative, but the conditions of the Mesetas cantonment would suggest that there is a long way to go in the process of ‘reincorporation’ and the financial sustainability of FARC cooperatives is unclear.
Sitting under a makeshift shelter, ‘El Medico’ (Mauricio Jaramillo), FARC leader in the Eastern Area, emphasised the urgent need for the provision of health, educational, training and employability. He echoed Timochenko who had described the lamentable state of the zone infrastructure as an indication of government failure to live up to the promises of the peace agreement. The appalling sanitary conditions, basic cooking arrangements and living accommodation cobbled together from blue plastic and black tarpaulins, underlined his point. The fact that visiting dignitaries had to be helicoptered in rather than struggling through the grasping morass of thick mud that marked the remote zone, was also pointed. ‘El Medico’, however, was quick to note that any improvement in facilities for FARC should also encompass an improvement in living conditions for the surrounding local communities. He was acutely aware of the danger that FARC would be accused of preferential treatment. His comrade, Pastor Alape, was also quick to frame the new political narrative – “The FARC perspective is to help build; help by accompanying all the people who dream of building an inclusive society. Justice”, he added, is to create “Better conditions of life for society”, in place of elite control rooted in Colombia’s colonial history. With a forthcoming party Congress, FARC hopes to ready itself for a non-violent political rather than military struggle. There are many Colombians that have yet to be convinced of the validity of this enterprise.
The Balance between Confidence-Building and Demands
When President Santos rose to speak, hand-made banners were distributed and waved demanding the release of the 3,000 or so remaining FARC prisoners from Colombian jails. ‘El Medico’ argued the importance of prisoner release to augment confidence in the peace process. FARC faces the difficulty of balancing demands that will maintain support for the process in its own ranks, with celebrating success that will augment public morale that things can get better for society as a whole. The politics of achievement has to trump any sense of loss if momentum is to be maintained.
Concerns are still apparent. FARC prisoners resorted to a hunger strike when one of their number died due to lack of adequate health care after being stabbed by another prison inmate last February. Judicial and administrative obstacles are cited as holding up prisoner release; and some ex-prisoners have been murdered after their release. A woman ex-prisoner, in the Mesetas zone, made a passionate plea for the FARC women prisoners that have received little or no information about their future. As in the Northern Ireland peace process, the politics of the prisons remains important.
The other quandary is to square the circle between effective ‘reincorporation’ of FARC members (both ex-combatants and ex-prisoners) and the political project that is developing. Work is being undertaken to ascertain basic needs, such as literacy and numeracy, but re-integration approaches also need to be asset-based. There is a hunger for concrete examples and recommendations, including for psycho-social support for many individuals that are both victims and combatants. Then there is the imperative that FARC initiatives are not seen as displacing existing community relationships and infrastructure, but instead are complementary and inclusive in nature. Finally, there are the very real concerns about the physical security of both FARC members and social activists, notwithstanding President Santos’s reassurance that “You will have all the security guarantees that are necessary”. Speaking at a seminar organised by the International Crisis Group and the Irish Embassy in Mexico, a representative of the Colombian Commission for Justice & Peace, Padre Alberto, stressed that such statements needed to be realised in practice as a matter of urgency.
Timochenko tweeted the night before the reconciliation celebration in Mesetas – ‘The laying down of arms is an act of will, courage and hope’. While undoubtedly true, the rooting of this vote of confidence will require determination and imagination, as well as the forging of a broad alliance for peace. Pre-existing community-based peacebuilding needs to be given its place in moving the Colombian process forward.
Avila Kilmurray attended the ceremony at the Mariana Paez TVZN and spoke on issues relating to the reincorporation of political ex-prisoners in Northern Ireland, representing The Social Change Initiative.