FARC members: We won't back down on peace, even with Duque

Election of right-wing Duque puts 2016 deal at risk, but many ex-rebels say they're now even more determined for peace.

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    Caqueta, Colombia - Luis Eduardo Prada Coicue pressed his thumb onto a black inkpad and then on a document on the table in the library of a small one-storey building with a tin roof, in the FARC reincorporation camp Agua Bonita in March.

    A government official sat next to him, explaining his newly gained rights.

    The document identified the 72-year-old as a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the rebel organisation that had been in conflict with the Colombian state for more than 50 years.

    Prada is one of the FARC's founding fathers.

    "Our ideology is the same today, what changed is our tactic," Prada told Al Jazeera.

    After the signing of the peace accord with the government of President Juan Manuel Santos nearly two years ago, weapons were replaced by a legal status for the FARC as a political party.

    One by one, the former combatants received their accreditations, granting them the rights preserved under the peace deal.

    Prada was one of the last to be accredited in Agua Bonita, which is located in the southwestern department Caqueta, close to the city Florencia - a gateway into the Amazon rainforest and a former stronghold of the one-time rebel group.

    Sitting on the terrace in front of his room, Prada said he feels more committed to the cause now than ever before.

    "Now, we can really make a change," he said, wearing a white hat with the image of a red rose on it: the new symbol of the FARC political party.

    Prada, one of the FARC's founding fathers, receives his official accreditiation[Lukas Rapp/Al Jazeera]

    Some 455 FARC members, including Prada and 53-year-old Olmedo Vega Londono, have been officially accredited in the camp. It is one of the 23 reincorporation zones, officially called Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation (ETCR), spread out over the country. In total, about 15,000 people have been registered with the FARC so far.

    "When we moved into this zone, we drove past the police and the military," Vega told Al Jazeera as he walked through an alley between the one-storey houses, all painted with colourful graffiti that depicted idols, such as Che Guevara and Frida Kahlo and art pieces on the topics of peace, love or socialism.

    "We used to throw bombs at each other, now they put their thumbs up or made peace signs. A beautiful moment," he said.

    Some 455 FARC members, including Prada and 53-year-old Olmedo Vega Londono, have been officially accredited in the Agua Bonita camp [Lukas Rapp/Al Jazeera]

    Yet, with the election of the right-wing President Ivan Duque on June 17, the futures of Prada, Vega and the thousands of other demobilised FARC members hang by a thread.

    "We will continue to follow the process, we won't back down," Prada said. "For now, we have to see what will happen, but we will be even more determined to ask the government to comply with the accords."

    Uncertainty over future of peace process

    During the election campaign, Duque promised changes to the peace treaty, creating a sense of uncertainty about its future implementation.

    Critics fear that this could push the already stumbling peace process over the edge and drive further former combatants back into the mountains to continue fighting, according to international humanitarian and human rights lawyer Laura Baron-Mendoza, who is working on the implementation of the peace accord.

    "Colombians need to give ex-members of any armed groups a chance in order to show them that it is possible to coexist without arms," she said.

    Agua Bonita is one of the 23 reincorporation zones [Lukas Rapp/Al Jazeera]

    Running for the party Centro Democratico, Duque's political stance is close to the former President Alvaro Uribe, who led a fierce war against the rebels.

    Duque has vowed to fight the polarisation of the country, but has been vague on how he plans to do this.

    Even before taking office, Duque's Centro Democratico party was able to postpone hearings for the state security personnel under the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which was established by the peace accords to allow victims to hear the truth and receive compensation for the alleged crimes committed during the conflict. Under the reformed version of the JEP procedures, accused members of state security forces will face a special tribunal. While the changes must still be approved by the Constitutional Court, critics argue it foreshadows how Duque plans to handle the peace process. 

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    "That already shows that under Duque's presidency the peace accord will enter a difficult path - if it doesn't fail completely," Omar de Jesus Restrepo, a FARC politician in the House of Representatives, told Al Jazeera.

    "In this presidential period, we all can count less on good faith," said Restrepo, who took part in the peace negotiations in Havana and travelled through Colombia convincing other FARC commanders to agree to the deal.

    On Monday, former FARC high-ranking commander Luciano Arango, known as Ivan Marquez announced he would not take his seat as a senator, citing among other reasons the recent reforms to the JEP. 

    "There is no record on planet earth in which a peace agreement, after signed and celebrated by the plenipotentiaries of the parties, has been modified at the whim of interested people that were not involved in the initial negotiation," Marquez wrote in an open letter

    "I ask the social and political organisations of the country to keep the banner of peace high without losing heart, he added. "Peace is the highest of all rights and without it we will not be anything as a nation. Let's be his missionaries. Let us not allow the obstructions indicated to spoil the most extraordinary achievement of Colombia in recent decades." 

    Another FARC party member will take his place. 

    Tense atmosphere

    Other critics worry that Duque's win may mean the end to projects aimed at helping prepare the former rebels to enter the labour market or university.

    According to the NRC, nearly 70 percent of the 6,370 ex-combatants, whom the programme targets, need to catch up with their primary school education.

    "There was already a shortage of food and infrastructure in the ETCR during the government of Santos," said Jannis Rubiano, who teaches the former rebels as part of an education programme, organised jointly by the Colombian Ministry of Education, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the Norwegian embassy.

    "From Duque, we could expect a total disregard of the ETCR in economic matters," Rubiano told Al Jazeera.

    According to a government official, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, the atmosphere in the camps is more tense now than before the elections.

    Some worry that Duque's win may mean the end to projects aimed at helping prepare the former rebels for life outside the conflict [Lukas Rapp/Al Jazeera] 

    Unlike in Agua Bonita, many camps are located farther away from cities and have no or poor internet connection, causing further isolation.

    Yet, the most severe problem for some zones is the proximity to armed groups, who are strengthening their presence in formerly FARC-controlled areas.

    More than 50 FARC members have been assassinated since they laid down arms last summer.

    Many fear that as the future of the peace process becomes more uncertain, more rebels will join the 1,200 former FARC members who have left to join dissident groups since the accord was signed.

    'Words are our only weapon'

    In Agua Bonita, such threats are less tangible than in other locations.

    In the camp, the FARC started growing crops - such as corn, bananas or pineapples, installed four water basins for fish, breed chicken and pigs and are opening the camp for tourism. As the zone was supposed to be temporary, they negotiated with the owner to buy the land - paying in instalments, since money is scarce.

    Many former rebels seem determined to continue the peace process, despite the difficulties to come.

    "We have to defend the accord, but words will remain our only weapon," said Bethsy Ruiz, a 39-year-old former commander, who joined the FARC when she was 15 years old.

    Bethsy added that she hopes there will be increased pressure from abroad: "We need international eyes here." 

    Many former rebels seem determined to continue the peace process, regardless of difficulties still to come [Lukas Rapp/Al Jazeera] 

    Meanwhile, the documents with Prada's inked fingerprints are being shelved in Bogota - along with the other 15,000 accreditations.

    The papers are meant to protect the former fighters from persecution and are aimed at facilitating their reincorporation.

    However, what those fingerprints will mean for Santos' newly elected successor is hard to forecast.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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