I listened to the following story told by a young leader and change-maker, Daniel Buriticá, when he spoke as a Colombian ambassador at the One Young World Summit in Colombia, the country where I have lived for the past six years.
Colombia is currently ending 50 years of civil war between the national government and the FARC, and at the One Young World Summit Daniel told us about the time he was asked to meet and work with a former guerrilla solider as part of the Summit´s peacebuilding work.
Daniel admitted that his first reaction to the request was one of doubt. He was thinking of how his aunt, who had been kidnapped and held by guerilla fighters in the Colombian jungle, would feel if he agreed to meet with a former FARC soldier.
He decided to speak to his aunt about the possibility. When he did, she began to cry. Then she told him a story.
Her experience as a hostage to the guerrillas was traumatizing. But there was one soldier who had taken special care of her.
Every morning, before the others awoke, he would bring her a coffee - even before he had his own. When she was hurt, he carried her through the jungle on his back. One day, as they were drinking coffee, the young soldier said to her with a smile ‘’Will you have a coffee with me one day, if we make it out of this place?” She looked him in the eyes and she said sadly, “I just don’t know. Maybe one day.’’
She described this soldier in detail to her nephew and with tears in her eyes said, “I think it is time. Find a man who fits that description, and invite him to coffee.’’
Daniel described that he returned to the Summit organizers, and together they arranged a meeting between him and a reintegrated soldier. When they met, at first it was strange, but they began to talk. A coffee turned into a beer. That initial conversation turned into a friendship. That friendship turned into a partnership.
Together they planned and implemented a camp, BAKONGO that works to build empathy, non-violent conflict resolution, and creativity in children in order to transform conflict. The Bakongo camp´s methodology focuses on leadership and skill building through service in order to unite communities in situations of vulnerability and/or victims of the conflict with adults from different social contexts.
The young man’s aunt followed the friendship, and partnership. As it progressed, she thought about sending a letter to the reintegrated soldier. But as time passed she thought better of it. Instead one day, she invited him to her home, and they drank coffee together at her kitchen table.
Daniel ended his story at the One Young World Summit in Bogotá by telling us that he saw people building walls to prevent peace. Determined to end this, he also resolved: “For every wall they build, we will build two bridges.’’
Upon hearing those words I realized that while many people like myself, who were born and grew up in the United States, have not experienced war so directly, we do live in a country in conflict. We too can learn from Colombia’s countless stories of forgiveness. They are equally as relevant to the story America is living today.
Bridges not walls
The year 2017 felt like a turning point for the US. New walls have been built, literally with the border wall between the US and Mexico, and figuratively as when we witnessed white supremacist hate groups openly marching.
2017 was a year in which we saw old walls uncovered. Horrors such as police brutality against African Americans or acts of terrorism perpetrated by white men with unlimited access to guns led to renewed social divisions which many thought the US had left behind.
There are people in the United States who would like us to believe that we cannot live without violence. Some even encouraged us to think that if we answer violence with violence, peace will be the result.
They want us to believe that in the United States the differences between us are too great for coexistence to be possible. Many politicians play to those differences, exaggerate them, and feed off the resulting frenzy of conflict and fear to maintain their power.
To those people I echo the words of Daniel, we will build two bridges.
Our differences are not irreconcilable, and conversation is always possible. I remind myself as I enter this new year— I must build two bridges.
At the One Young World Summit, I heard the stories of young survivors of genocide and war from all over the world; young people with different languages, backgrounds, and life stories, but who shared a common life lesson.
They had learned that despite surviving through what they had lived through, forgiveness was not just an option, but a necessity.
Forgiving the unforgivable, was the only way they could continue living, because the burden of hate and anger was too great to bear, both physically and emotionally.
Peacebuilding in the USA
It is difficult to see what lies ahead for my country, the United States, and for our planet. Local and state elections in the US have already begun, and 2018 will be a crucial year as Americans look to the ballot box as a tool for change.
As we face these new realities, and all the unknowns they bring, I invite us to stay outraged in the face of injustice, to channel that passion into actions that promote peace, but not to let it turn into hate.
A great Colombian peace negotiator, Humberto de La Calle, said he learned that the key to negotiating conflicts was listening. He said ‘’putting yourself in somebody’s shoes, does not mean walking in their shoes.’’ Listening and understanding where a person is coming from does not mean you have to agree with what they say.
This advice is equally pertinent to conflict resolution in the US. It is common to hear about people who have unfriended others on Facebook having read posts offensive to their beliefs, or live in families where difficult issues have been banned from the dinner table.
But I take inspiration from the many survivors I heard who speak about the strength they found within themselves to sit down with their so-called enemies. They sought out spaces for inclusive and frank dialogue, and we are capable of the same.
Each of us has someone who we flinch to think about sitting down to drink coffee with. But that is our challenge as our societies become increasingly divided. Now is the time to come together, because the alternative is not one we can afford.
So let’s accept this challenge in 2018. Over beer, coffee, tea, let’s sit down and talk. As with so many other aspects of life, change is what we give, not what we ask others to give to us.