On June 23, a group of kidnapping victims met with former commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) to listen to their acceptance of responsibility. The most anticipated part of the meeting was the intervention of Ingrid Betancourt, the former presidential candidate kidnapped for six years, who has been in exile in Europe since she was freed in 2008.
My first political memories of living in Colombia are deeply linked to Ingrid Betancourt. I was not even ten when I saw the image of the former presidential candidate for the first time. She was praying in the middle of the jungle, and being held by chains. She was one of hundreds of people the FARC-EP had kidnapped at the time, and was deemed “unexchangeable” because of her political relevance in Colombia and abroad. I also remember the day, in 2008, when I was on vacation from my primary school, when Ingrid and 14 other people were freed. I remember the moment when she called her mother from the airport in Villavicencio. Seeing these kidnappings were what sparked my disgust for war.
Listening to Ingrid during an event of the Truth Commission where she talked to her former captors has been the absolute highlight of this year for me. “The value of this encounter lies in the fact that those who acted as warlords and those who suffered from them. All of us who were in the eye of the hurricane of war rose in unison to Colombia to tell the country that the war is a failure. That it has only served so that nothing changes and to continue postponing the future of our youth.” It was not only important symbolically that Betancourt and Rodrigo Londoño, former commander and President of the Comunes party, the party that was created after the peace process, were in the same place; but the process taught me how deep and intimate dialogue is the key to forgiveness and reconciliation. This process is different to the negotiation of a peace agreement, it is not done by reaching a middle ground, but rather by reaching a higher ground together.
That is why the reflections shared by Betancourt were particularly moving to me. As I will detail later, I have met former FARC-EP combatants over the years and I believe their intentions around peacebuilding are sincere. Ending the war has allowed them to see the impact of their actions on real human beings rather than on imaginary bourgeois enemies. Time and time again they have asked forgiveness for their actions and are now supporting transitional justice processes to assure victims’ rights. However, reconciliation does not allow for things to be done “just fine”; it requires things to be done to the maximum capacity of the human soul.
After listening to Betancourt’s speech I was reminded that the peace process is an ongoing part of our history, even amidst the difficulties surrounding the agreement today. Difficulties relating to the lack of interest in implementing the Agreement from the Government, which was elected as a negative reaction to the peace process. The pain caused by war is not healed by a mere handshake. Betancourt commented on every speech, one by one. She asked defiant questions to the people that had taken away her liberty for more than six years. She asked them to leave out their political rhetoric, valid as it may be from a political party, but misplaced in this situation. She was not satisfied: she required the former FARC-EP commanders to speak from their heart and not from the intellectually robust and prepared speeches that seem distant, insincere and unassuming.
When hate turns into healing
Since I was at high school, one of my icons has been Bertha Fries. Like Betancourt, Fries is a victim of the violence perpetrated by the FARC-EP. She was in the El Nogal social club, when in February 2003, FARC-EP detonated a car bomb killing 36 people and wounding more than 200. She was paralyzed from the neck down for many years, which put a stop to her aspiring professional career, as well as her family life. She had to travel to the United States for physical and psychological therapy and was completely bankrupt at the end of her process. The impact of violence in her life had filled her with hate.
This hate consumed her life, and as she said herself, took her to hell. All she could think about was the bright light she had seen as a wall fell on top of her. She was obsessed with how unjust life was; how she was not the target of any military action being a middle class woman with a ‘normal’ job, and how she was a good person working in order to make other people’s life better. FARC-EP had destroyed her life, without even knowing who she was.
However, life tends to be full of unexpected gifts, and one day she unexpectedly met a former FARC-EP combatant in her work as a business consultant. When learning she had been a guerrilla, Bertha asked what she would say to a victim if she had the chance to speak to one. “I would ask her to forgive us”, said the former fighter. Without knowing she was speaking to that victim, she was asking for forgiveness and had transformed Bertha.
Only by meeting this former combatant was she able to stop hating. “Hate is a venom that you use to kill someone else” goes the old adage. When FARC-EP signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government in 2016, Bertha campaigned for “Yes” on the peace plebiscite; the final vote on the peace agreement, and became a representative voice for FARC-EP victims seeking reconciliation. And after losing the plebiscite, she was invited by the FARC-EP delegation to Havana in order to bring new voices to the negotiation. In Havana, she met with guerrilla leaders and developed a plan to guarantee truth and reparations for other victims of the bomb in El Nogal social club.
Today, Bertha says proudly that she has lunch every week with members of the Comunes party. She has appeared frequently on television and in public events with Carlos Antonio Lozada, senator and former FARC-EP commander. She has become an icon of reconciliation in Colombia through her Transformative Encounters for Reconciliation intiative, in which victims and former combatants meet to listen to each other and reconcile.
The shame of conflict
Inspired by the actions of Ingrid, Bertha, and others, for two years I coordinated a project in which young people had the opportunity to speak with victims and former combatants. Though there was a book eventually published about that experience, the real innovation was to have more than a hundred young men and women meet people who had experienced war first hand. Amongst them were many former FARC-EP combatants going through the reincorporation process.
After many months of trying, we were able to arrange a gathering with Rodrigo Londoño for the 1st of February 2020, one of our last encounters before the pandemic. The encounter was held in a bar created by former combatants and was attended by more than 30 young people. During the meeting, he told us his story: how he joined the guerrilla and the challenges of leading that group of people towards peace.
When talking about a meeting he had with Bertha Fries, he said: “She asked me why I was so distant and serious. I had to tell her I was just terribly ashamed every time I looked at her after all we had done to her and her family.” Somewhat different to the ceremony about kidnappings, he seemed genuinely ashamed. It was then, looking into her eyes, that he understood the victims of the bombing were not cabinet members and CEOs of multinational corporations, but rather normal, good people who were just doing their best day to day for their families and communities. They were not a static or an undetermined enemy; they had names and faces and families.
I felt the same shame when I talked to him later in the year when the FARC-EP former secretariat formally recognized they had kidnapped people after listening to Betancourt talking with father Francisco de Roux, the President of the Truth Commission. The leadership of the Comunes party had heard the conversation between Ingrid and Father de Roux by chance, in the middle of meeting on their political agenda.
The following day, without being prompted, FARC-EP leaders recognized they had committed kidnappings throughout the war. They had previously referred to the cases as “retentions” or “war prisoners”, when victims had been mostly civilians and conditions were inhumane and harmful. They also addressed the case of Andrés Felipe Pérez, the son of a kidnapped serviceman who died of cancer waiting for his father’s liberation. As with his meeting with Bertha Fries, his victims once again were able to see faces, families and stories. It was impossible for the former leaders of the armed group to ignore the humanity of those who had survived Colombia’s violence, as they had done while they had kidnapped them.
Betancourt started her intervention by noting that all the victims were crying, whereas none of the former FARC-EP commanders had shed a tear. She said that victims were “naked” while perpetrators were “armored”. Later, Father De Roux asked the former commanders not to convince people through rational argumentation but rather captivate their hearts with sincere reflections of what has been lost in these decades.
There was no hug, not even a handshake, between Londoño and Betancourt, but that does not mean that reconciliation is impossible or will not happen. It is just a reminder of how this is a process, and a long and complex one. It is a reminder of how far FARC-EP former commanders have come in recognizing the crimes committed by war, and how much of the road is left to travel still. It shows how much victims have given in order to forgive and reconcile, but also how much society still owes them.
Stories like Bertha’s make reconciliation seem easy, because Bertha is an extraordinary woman, as Ingrid and Rodrigo are too. But war is not child’s play, it took away and destroyed lives. It has traumatized millions of Colombians and has taken humanity away from a whole society. It has armored us and has made it difficult to come naked to the place where we meet to discuss what has happened to us.
Surely, in the near future, there will be another meeting between FARC-EP former commanders and Betancourt. Maybe this time it will be private and intimate, not public and political. This time, it will have to be civil society that organizes the dialogue, as the Truth Commission’s mandate is set to end in November. Maybe then, as Betancourt said, they will be able to cry together from her tragedy, their tragedy, our tragedy. After crying together, there may be a handshake or even a hug - maybe there will be forgiveness. There will be reconciliation, and as the two of them reconcile, maybe the rest of society will be inspired to do the same. But even if they never meet again, that day has given Colombians the chance to cry together over our shared tragedy, to reconcile through truth and responsibility, and look forward together with hopes of peace.
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