Medellin, Colombia – The memories came flooding back to Angela Maria Escobar when she woke to the news that key former leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were once again picking up arms.
The bloody clashes between the rebel fighters and paramilitary groups. The sounds of gunfire that once echoed across her small Colombian town. Her friends who were murdered by one armed group because they were suspected of helping the other.
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The sadness, desolation, fear, and the date, December 23, 2000: the day she was raped by three paramilitaries fighters.
“It’s a sadness, devastation, I felt like I was powerless,” she said.
Anxiety struck many in the South American country on Thursday morning, when a group of FARC leaders – including former peace negotiator Ivan Marquez – announced they were rearming against the government of Colombian President Ivan Duque, accusing him of not honouring the 2016 peace accords.
While the peace was already on thin ice, the announcement of a “new phase of armed struggle” by the guerrilla fighters marked perhaps the biggest hit to Colombian peace since the accords were signed three years ago.
But for victims like Escobar, it was something more potent.
“We hope it doesn’t happen again, we have to make sure we stop it from happening again: the massacres, the assassinations, the kidnappings, the sexual violence,” she said.
The Colombian armed conflict has raged for more than half a century in the country’s jungles and cities, leaving behind more than eight million victims, including an estimated 28,000 people who were sexually abused. When the FARC fighters and the government of former President Juan Manuel Santos signed the peace accords in 2016, it acted as a light at the end of the tunnel for many victims. It promised compensation for their pain, a way for their voices to be heard and an end to the violence that had grown to define their lives.
“I spent 10 years in silence,” said Escobar, now leading an organisation working to amplify the voices of sexual violence victims of the armed conflict. “Ten years’ suffering.”
But hope began to shift towards anxiety one year ago when Duque took the stage, winning the presidency after campaigning against Santos’s peace deal.
Peace far from the reality
The next year brought with it a surge of killings of social leaders and former rebels, as well as failures by the government to implement key parts of the deal, including reintegration of former combatants, victims’ restitution and development in rural areas often disproportionately affected by the conflict.
As many ex-FARC fighters began to once again pick up arms with other dissident groups, and world leaders urged the Colombian government to sufficiently implement the accords, the concept of peace became more of a dream than a reality for many formerly wartorn areas of the country.
That was the feeling in March for Marifer Culman Ortiz, a 19-year-old working to deactivate landmines in her jungled home of Caqueta, Colombia, once the heart of the FARC’s fight against the government.
As a child, she watched family and classmates picked off by gunfire and explosives exchanged by FARC rebels and the military. Her strongest childhood memories were always of bullets and bloodshed. Though violence had dissolved in much of the zone, she saw the accords only as a brief respite.
“What they call the peace process, it’s not a peace process. It’s just a way to calm the guerrilla,” she said, looking out into the distant mountains where groups of dissidents were reported to be regrouping. “This is only for a moment.”
With Wednesday’s announcement by Marquez and other leaders – who were surrounded by a group of uniformed and armed men and women in a 32-minute YouTube video – many fear that moment may soon be over.
Duque responded on Thursday by announcing he was sending a special military unit after the rebels and declaring a three billion peso, or $882,000, reward for the arrest of those in the video.
On Friday, Defence Minister Guillermo Botero said troops killed nine FARC dissidents in rural areas of the south.
‘I hope we don’t return to the years of horrors’
While other FARC leaders were quick to reaffirm that more than 90 percent of ex-rebels were still committed to consolidating peace in Colombia, for Escobar, the move by the former FARC leaders was a long time coming.
“As a victim, I will say: the truth is, this man doesn’t want peace,” she said. “Of course, I see him as being responsible. Of course, the Colombian government has part of the responsibility. They failed to implement the peace accords.”
Others, like Fabiola Perdomo, a wife of one of 11 Colombian deputies held captive and assassinated by the FARC and a leader in Colombia’s Victims’ Unit, instead met the announcement with anger, telling Colombian media that “Marquez has failed the victims”. She wondered, like many in the South American country, if future peace was still on the cards for them.
“Now, there’s only one path for the state to persecute and combat them,” she said. “I only hope that we don’t return to those years of horrors where the only thing they left behind in the country were the displaced, the widows and orphans.”