Colombia restaurant cooks up recipe for peace

El Cielo, one of Latin America’s top restaurants, assembles kitchen staff of army veterans and former rebel fighters.

Decades of conflict have made it difficult for Colombia’s former combatants to find a job – but one fine-dine restaurant is working to change that.

Medellin-based El Cielo, one of Latin America’s top 50 restaurants, is promoting peace and reconciliation by hiring one-time enemies to work at its celebrated kitchen.

It offers training and employment to military veterans and former rebel fighters as part of a government initiative aiming to help them reintegrate into society.

“A prospective employer wants to know your experience, who can recommend you. And as a former rebel what can you answer? But here I didn’t have to lie,” Nora Bolivar, who escaped the powerful FARC rebel group after four years, told Al Jazeera. 

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Since 2003, around 18,000 former fighters already quit the ranks of FARC, one of the most powerful guerilla movements in the region. Many have joined the government’s reintegration programme, but struggle to find stable work facing fear and discrimination.

Bolivar, who left her hometown after receiving threats, was one of them.

When a government agency connected her with El Cielo, she worried about not being able to work in a restaurant and feared working shoulder-to-shoulder with her former enemy.

“When I saw him for the first time I had the shivers,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what his reaction would be. But that same day we talked and I cried, and since then he’s been my support.”

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Her colleague Ruben Romero is a military veteran, who lost his left eye and right leg to a FARC landmine.

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Romero said that at first, it was also hard for him to accept her presence.

“But we shared our stories. And I understood they are victims as well. It helped me to move on and remove a huge burden,” he said.

The restaurant foundation originally only hired former soldiers – hiring ex-rebels was a bigger leap.

“There were like fears, of course, about security, about public opinion, many things,” said Juan Manuel Barrientos, El Cielo’s chef.

“But in the end we said, ‘Hey, if we don’t do it, no one will’.”

At El Cielo, workers know a restaurant alone is not likely to reverse decades of fear and distrust.

Still, they are convinced the programme might just become a recipe for reconciliation.

Source: Al Jazeera