Perpetrators and victims of the war in Colombia come together to write about their memories

Perpetrators and victims of the war in Colombia come together to write about their memories

Police officer Jhon (second from left) with activist Nathalia, soldier Jefferson and, in the opposite corner, local farmer Darius with one of his daughters, and former FARC rebel Mario, during one of the workshop sessions.

(José Fajardo)

Darío looks behind him as he walks. He still feels threatened. He remembers the times when the crossfire between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian army endangered the lives of his two young daughters in this same rural settlement, Buenavista, almost two hours by car from Mesetas (in south-east Colombia). Today this local farmer is going to attend a workshop on creative writing and community publishing together with the protagonists of the war that shook the area for years.

Sitting around the table in what is now a library, just a couple of minutes from his farm, are Jhon, a 20-year-old policeman from Tolima who has been stationed to the area, Mario, a former FARC fighter who spent three years in jail, Jefferson, a friendly and shy soldier in military uniform, and Nathalia, a human rights activist who was born in Bogotá.

“Our aim is to promote these public libraries, set up by the government to build peace, as meeting places, encouraging the community to take ownership of them,” says editor Margarita Valencia, a research fellow at the Caro y Cuervo Institute who is going to facilitate the three-day workshop with Dario, Jhon, Mario, Jefferson, Nathalia and 14 other people from the area.

The idea behind this gathering, which would have been unthinkable before the end of the armed struggle between the FARC and the Colombian state at the end of 2016, is to bring together these former enemies, now people living alongside one another, to share the stories that form part of their collective memory.

“They are neighbours, but they barely know one another, and perhaps they would never have stopped to talk to each other. The Peace in the Forest project wants to go beyond of narration of first-hand experiences: it is a way of encouraging dialogue and generating debate, weaving a social fabric,” explains Elizabeth Valenzuela, of Fondo Acción – the organisation funding this initiative in the remote forests and rural areas where the war was fought out.

Mesetas was a bastion of the FARC during most of the over 50-year armed conflict in Colombia. With a population of just 12,000, the area was naturally strategic: jungle terrain crossed by mountains, forests and rivers where the guerrilla fighters could hide.

“Your stories are a book. What you see every day are stories: the streams, the mountains, the pastures, the animals, the crops, these are reading without realising it, you are experts in the territory you inhabit and that is very valuable,” says writer Juan Cárdenas, who also works with the Caro y Cuervo Institute.

What do you dream about? What memories do you have? How do you see yourselves in the future? Margarita and Juan ask the twenty or so participants to write about their experiences and thoughts. They have all been selected after responding to a public call for participation. The workshop is fully funded so that people with limited resources can attend.

Together they weave a journey through Colombia’s recent history. They discuss issues such as displacement, loss and fear, but they also talk about their loved ones, nature, their traditions. They all share a quality demonstrated time and again, not only in this rural settlement but in every small town in Colombia: resilience, the strength to overcome traumatic events.

“The police car couldn’t come this far. If you saw someone from the army, you had to throw yourself on to the ground or run: it meant that fighting was going to break out,” Darío recalls. He points to the mountain range behind the library. The military helicopter would descend and machine-gun the mountains through which the guerrillas would scurry. His story tells of his separation from his wife and one of his daughters. The backdrop is the war. It is the first time he has shared these memories with anyone.

The seemingly calm wait

Today Mesetas is living in apparent tranquillity. Only the tower protecting one of the corners of the police station acts as a reminder of the violence of the past. It is surrounded by sacks of earth and barbed wire, to protect it against guerrilla attacks. The building still has the underground tunnels through which the police officers used to escape to safety.

Nathalia has tattoos and sports a logo with the red rose of the political party legally founded by the former guerrilla group. She studied at university in Bogotá and was not part of the FARC during the armed conflict but is now a training activist. She works with community associations and is taking part in a project headed by the Reintegration and Normalisation Agency (set up by the government) to train ex-combatants and facilitate their reintegration into society.

She first came to Mesetas in August of last year and in February she decided to leave her family in the capital and move here. Her story is the tale of that farewell and what it meant to her. She has since been living in the Mariana Páez camp, a 10-minute walk from the library, a former base for some of the 12,000 guerrillas who laid down their arms in mid-2017.

There were 450 ex-combatants living in the camp at the beginning. Now there are just over 200. The government promised them land, housing, education and production projects in exchange for giving up arms. These benefits are a long time coming. The camp is in a precarious state. They are living in shacks they built themselves out of wood and plastic. There is no sign of the resources promised.

“Many went to try their luck in the big cities, but they are coming back now because they couldn’t find work. The conditions here are subhuman, but at least they have a roof over their heads,” says Nathalia.

She believes in the transformative power of community initiatives because it is the only way these people, who have known nothing but war and life in the jungle, can learn to fend for themselves in society.

The main worry is the uncertainty. After a visit earlier this year to the Cajicá Peace Home, set up by the Ministry of Defence, where individual demobilised combatants (those who did not sign up for the peace process and deserted on their own, often consider traitors by the FARC) are able to sort out their legal situation, one thing was left clear: everyone shares a fear of the future.

They think that both the state and the top guerrilla leaders have forgotten about them. They feel anxious and insecure about the future. They complain about the lack of opportunities in society and their fear of being killed. They are suffering from psychological traumas because of what they did and saw during the conflict, and many cannot return to their land and reunite with their families for fear of reprisals.

Mario spent time in jail on charges of rebelling against the state. He was released as part of the amnesty set out in the peace agreement. He now belongs to the political party legally founded by the FARC and lives in the Simón Trinidad camp, in Mesetas. More than 600 FARC political prisoners arrived there after leaving jail. Today there are just 50 left. He signed up for the Peace in the Forest literary workshop to learn new things and meet different people. Although he doesn’t say so, it was also a way of escaping routine.

“I am proud to be able to talk to someone who was once our enemy and to shake his hand without resentment. Now our battle is with language, it’s up to us to recover the education we left abandoned during the war,” he says.

The ex-guerrilla fighters at the camp grow avocado, potatoes, coffee, cassava, passion fruit, corn and bananas. They also raise pigs. At night some gather at Mariana Páez to listen to vallenatos, cumbias, salsa, rancheras and reggaetón. There is a billiard table and a cockpit, and on days when they manage to earn a decent amount they buy a few beers or share a bottle of aguardiente. More than a way of life, it seems like a they are in a state of waiting, for something that never comes, without knowing what it is.

A place of peace

At the entrance to the library, a sign with a crossed-out gun prohibits the entry of weapons. “This is a place of peace. We trust in your valuable cooperation!” says the notice.

The soldier, Jefferson, takes off his military boots so as not to fill the place with mud and arrives without his rifle, unarmed. Jhon and his three fellow police officers do enter with their pistols on their belts and their long, leather, buckled boots. Mario has a simple machete hanging from his belt (a basic tool for the campesinos of Colombia). He is wearing a Che Guevara cap and a T-shirt with the slogan “¡Queremos la paz!” (“We want peace!”).

The rapport between them is respectful. The tension of the first day is giving way to trust, smiles and an interest in the others’ lives. The stories come out spontaneously. They are poetic and profound, some sad, some harrowing, and all have a special beauty: there is a strong sense that their protagonists have never shared them with anyone before.

On the last day, the participants pose for a photo, holding their work and the diplomas received for successfully completing the workshop. They all shake hands and smile. Without realising it, they have broken down a barrier made strong and impenetrable by many long years of war. “We just want everything to stay like this: peaceful,” says Darius, who doesn’t want his daughters ever to have to look behind out of fear as they walk down these paths, as he still does.

This article has been translated from Spanish.