Title quote by Vera Grabe.
My time in Colombia allowed me to learn about society and the aftereffects of the conflict in a way that is simply not possible via articles or various news outlets—something that academics hardly realize. A combination of the four week long course, “Fragmentos de la historia del conflict armado colombiano,” at the University of los Andes, my living situation with a Colombian family, my internship, and my day-to-day experiences have all contributed to my general outlook on life in Colombia after decades of war and violence.
Learning about the history and politics of the conflict from politicians, professors, and government employees provides one with a fraction of the reality of the situation—or in the words of Alfredo Molano, “la historia official/académica,” whereas talking with people about their experiences, like what Molano did in his relatos, provides a history that people have lived, felt and suffered.
At the same time, this method of learning can be risky. I am referring to a conversation I had with a group of three people while I was in Medellin in early July. I somehow found myself talking about politics and the conflict with them, and they began to tell me how much they loved Uribe, how much better and safer the country was when he was in power and that anyone implicated with or supportive of the FARC or any other ¨subversive group should be wiped out. I was shocked to hear this perspective and the human rights defender side of me came out immediately—without a filter I started to go on and on about how we are all human and how everyone in a way has been a victim of the conflict and they were truly shocked at my perspective. They ended up leaving telling me that they hoped I would learn the truth of the conflict. I stood there looking after them, realizing how little I knew about the various loyalties that still exist and that I should probably avoid getting into those conversations with people I don’t know.
This group of people spoke to me with complete confidence, but what shocks me is that elsewhere in the country people speak about their experiences and outlook on the conflict and on politics in a whispered voice. People are still scared. The culture of disappearing people has remained in the minds of those who have lived the conflict. In Bogotá, an elderly woman with whom I have spoken numerous times told me she filters what she posts on Facebook in terms of political opinion and human rights because “aquí el gobierno sabe todo.” An elderly man who lives in my building was telling me that he has no hope that this country will ever see either justice or peace, because the politicians are “traidores,” an opinion shared by many Colombians I met. During our entire conversation, which may have lasted for about 10-15 minutes, this man whispered…in his own building. Is this democracy? If the average citizen cannot even express his/her opinion without fear in a personal conversation, what does this mean for the country’s path towards peace?
This reality also came out clearly to me one afternoon when I went to an Italian restaurant in La Candelaria with Colombian classmates from Los Andes, called Madre. This restaurant is essentially hidden. It is close to impossible to find it unless you go with someone who has already been. One of our classmates who is a journalist told me about a magazine that he writes for, that one can only find in a number of places, Madre being one of them. I wondered why this was the case.
The name of the magazine is ¡Pacifista! and it is a “manifiesto contra la guerra.” Right away I understood that the magazine was likely hidden due to persecution that exists against human rights defenders and journalists. The entire work is about human rights and the definition of peace according to the average Colombian citizen, and includes a large compilation of testimonies from members of all sectors of society. It includes people’s opinions regarding an efficient peace process in terms of victim inclusivity and other issues that deserve attention, like poverty and corruption. Every point of view is present. It is probably one of the most interesting and captivating works I read while in Colombia, and includes perspectives from indigenous people, youth, Afro-Colombians, soldiers, homeless people, journalists, members of the LGBTI community, artists, guerrillas, etc. No one is left out. No perspective is left out.
As amazing as this magazine is, and as revolutionary as it could be in terms of heightening the level of tolerance and respect for diversity and providing an inclusive forum for dialogue, the fact that it is hidden goes back to prove my original point that people are still scared. People who believe in the significance of every individual having an equally important role in Colombia’s peace process still live in fear, and I find it overwhelming obvious, disturbing, and a significant hindrance to the effectiveness of the negotiations in la Habana.
I encountered people that laughed at the fact that I study matters of peace, not because they are against peace, but because they have no hope. At the same time, I have been trying to stay positive, keeping in mind what Vera Grabe, an anthropologist, politician, and former member of the M-19, said when she came to speak to our class at Los Andes. Her idea of peace is not an absolute peace nor a goal that can be achieved…it is something that already exists, an imperfect path that never ends, a constantly dynamic construction. It cannot be understood solely as the end of violence—peace also means a cultural transformation, an end to governmental and political corruption, and tolerance.
My experience in Colombia taught me the importance of listening to people, something that Molano has mastered over the years. There is no better way to learn about the reality of a situation, especially a situation as complicated as the Colombian conflict, than listening to those who have lived it.
Mariam Saoma is a second year in the Conflict Resolution Program who graduated from the University of Richmond in 2013 with a Bachelor’s in International Studies and Latin American & Iberian Studies. She focuses on issues related to humanitarian emergencies, refugee crises, and human rights, especially as they relate to the most vulnerable, often minority, populations.