Colombia: Fragile peace a year after FARC referendum

A new mother and former FARC fighter, an ex-FARC commander, a peace worker and senator reflect on 2016 peace accord.

Colombia peace
Opponents of a proposed peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC campaign for a ''No'' vote a day before a referendum was held on October 2, 2016 [Ariana Cubillos/The Associated Press]

The people of Colombia were given a choice on October 2, 2016, to approve a peace deal designed to bring the world’s longest continuous war to an end through a referendum.

The accord was narrowly rejected with 50.2 percent of voters opposing the deal.  

The armed conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) spanned more than 50 years. The war resulted in the deaths of more than 220,000 Colombians and displaced nearly seven million people. 

Despite a desire for peace, many felt that the agreement made in Havana, Cuba, was too lenient towards the FARC. Under the proposed accord, its members who confessed to their crimes would be entitled to reduced sentences. 

On November 24, 2016, President Juan Manuel Santos pushed through a revised peace agreement. 

Since then, a fragile peace has been maintained, with the FARC fighters laying down their weapons and some of them starting families. 

Still, there are concerns about the implementation of the peace deal, the viability of the FARC as a political party with guaranteed seats in congress and the threat coming from right-wing paramilitary groups. 

A new mother and former FARC fighter, an ex-FARC commander, a peace worker and a senator reflect on the events of the last year and consider the challenges of creating a lasting peace.

Yorly Ramirez, 26, former FARC fighter and medic  

At age 13, I said I’d join the FARC and change the situation that thousands of Colombians were facing. Now, I’m 26 years old, and I’m a new mother to a boy called Enders. 

I was pregnant before, but it was too difficult. It wasn’t safe to have children during the war. We had no place to raise them in the camps. 

We were exposed to bombing and raids, and the paramilitaries would use your children to threaten you. I wasn’t going to have a baby for it to be raised by someone else. That’s when I decided to have an abortion. 

Four months after the peace treaty was signed, they sent me to Bogota to be part of a group of journalists and tell the story of the post-conflict time. We’re part of a new era, all of us guerrilla fighters. 

FARC did many things that were inconvenient. We have asked for forgiveness and will do so until the very last moment. It hurts us because we also lost family members. It hurts us bad. 

There’s no going back now. There’s a risk of dying because Colombia is still not prepared to accept us as regular citizens. A paramilitary could still kill me because he doesn’t agree [with the deal]. 

I firmly believe in the peace process, and I will continue with it. I will keep on working for the party. I don’t think it would be right for me to walk away from something I’ve spent so much time fighting for. To go home and not lift a finger, I mean, it’s good that I’m with [my family] but where would all those years of fighting go?

Luis Emil Sanabria, Director of REDEPAZ (National Network of Civic Initiatives for Peace and Against War)   

Hearing the [referendum’s] result was a very difficult moment. There was nothing more we could do. Our surveys said that the majority of the population were in favour [of the ‘Yes’ vote]. We never had any expectation that it would be rejected. 

Since 1993, we have been working for peace, for reconciliation.We did a campaign to support the peace agreement. This agreement followed one of the most significant discussions between the government and the FARC guerrillas ever.

I think the public was manipulated.

by Luis Emil Sanabria

Of course, there was a counter-campaign in favour of the ‘No’ vote, which was fundamentally based on false truths, but which won. I think the public was manipulated. 

But, at the same time, the peace deal had gained significant support, almost 50 percent of the population, so we decided to keep working. 

I think little by little, the Colombian people are understanding the magnitude of the agreement and the importance of implementing it. 

A year after the plebiscite there is still not social justice in Colombia. Colombian society needs to know the truth so that we can reconcile ourselves with everything that’s happened during this armed conflict. But we are working to reconcile ourselves, particularly in the regions that have been closest to the conflict and are most affected by it. 

There’s also a concern about what will happen after the next elections [to be held in March 2018]. The Centro Democratico opposes the peace agreements, they don’t want the FARC in congress, and they feel the victims have not received reparations, so if they get into power, the peace agreement could be at risk. 

They [FARC] will face challenges adjusting to traditional democracy because they are not an organisation that follows that path. They have a democracy which is still gripped by corruption in regions where drug trafficking takes place. 

Eventually, I think we will see that the peace agreement will benefit everyone, in economic terms and in social terms. There are various sections of Colombian society that are excluded from the benefits of development and economic growth. Peace will aid Colombia’s economic development. Colombia is still one of the most under-developed countries in the world, with everything concentrated in the cities. 

But there is still the question of reparations, of drug trafficking of politics and recognising the FARC as a political party. This is a difficult moment for Colombia. 

Alfredo Rangel Suarez, 62, Senator, Centro Democratico political party  

It was a very intense, animated campaign leading up to the referendum.

Centro Democratico supported the ‘No’ campaign, but the ‘Yes’ campaign was supported by the government, the media, business owners and by many parts of the international community. The campaign was very unequal. 

We've had a year of implementing agreements that were rejected by the Colombian people

by Alfredo Rangel Suarez

However, the public voted ‘No’. 

Unfortunately, this decision was ignored by the government, so we’ve had a year of implementing agreements that were rejected by the Colombian people. 

The problem with the Havana agreement is that it gave impunity to a terrorist group. The FARC have carried out tens of thousands of crimes against humanity; assassinations, massacres, kidnapping, disappearances, systematic rape. 

The Centro Democratico doesn’t object to FARC having a political party after it has turned in all weapons and has fully demobilised, but what we do object to is that those members of the FARC who are responsible for crimes against humanity don’t spend time in jail and can become politicians and occupy seats in congress and enjoy a situation of complete impunity. 

President Santos said the FARC had agreed to hand over 14,000 weapons, but they’ve only handed back 8,000. This presents a risk to national security in Colombia. They are the only political party in Colombia with an armed wing and an illicit trade that provides them with huge economic resources. 

[FARC] say they need to protect themselves from paramilitary groups but paramilitaries don’t exist in Colombia. They were demobilised, and their leaders are in prison. Many became drug traffickers once they were demobilised and they do business with the FARC and ELN guerrillas now – they’re partners. 

The peace agreements were designed to reconcile a country, but they can’t do this when they’re out of step with the majority of public opinion. 

The agreements being enforced in Colombia now were rejected by the public because the Colombian people see that they are agreements for impunity, that there hasn’t been justice and that the promises haven’t been fulfilled. 

Robinson Ramirez Franco, 49, former FARC commander  

When the plebiscite happened, I was in Bolivar Square in Bogota. No one knew who I was, but I was going crazy thinking ‘how is it that after so many years of war people can say no to peace?’ We thought we were going to win; I couldn’t believe it. I thought ‘What’s happening? These people are ignorant; they want the war to continue.’

I left the FARC eight years ago. I had to travel for four days and three nights through the mountains without food. I had been with them for 13 years. 

After so much death I had to leave. I was tired of war.

by Robinson Ramirez Franco

When the bombardments started many of my friends died. One of the commanders who died knew me since I was 17, he’d been with me the whole time, since my beginnings with the FARC. 

After so much death I had to leave. I was tired of war.

I started a foundation called NUVIPADES, which stands for Nueva Vida por los Desmovilizados (New life for the demobilised) to support demobilised guerrilla fighters and to keep ourselves strong and heard, if not by FARC, then by the government.

We were not represented at Havana; deserters couldn’t speak, there were no pardons for us, we are traitors to the cause.

There was a girl whose parents were FARC guerrillas. The mother died a short time after she was born and so her grandparents took care of her. Her father was killed when he deserted to return to his daughter. Now she’s 14 years old, and her family is trying to get her recognised as a victim of the conflict, but nothing has happened so far.

We’ve helped about 180 ex-guerrillas. We help them and their families find employment, or to set up businesses, but we also try to build up their self-esteem and teach them respect and responsibility. 

My hopes for the future? I don’t have many. While capitalism reigns people will always take up arms. Peace can exist but not within the current system.

I’m tired of wars; I don’t want to fight. I’ve always wanted peace and to build a new Colombia. We have to fight for a lasting peace so that that can be the story of the nation.

Source: Al Jazeera