Colombia, in Search of Truth and Peace

By: Sarah Champagne
AFE at the investigative online media Verdad Abierta

There is such a thirst to speak up. And the silence of 52 years of conflict. A powerful desire to transition to peace and so much pessimism about recent setbacks. There are many fronts of peace pushing forwards and still so many conflicted areas.

More than two years after the peace accord was signed, Colombia is at a critical juncture. On one side, there is a multitude of institutions, feeding legalistic and bureaucratic approaches to challenges. At least on paper, they are offering reassurance to meet the accord terms.

On the other side, I find a country with “holes” as if bullets had fired through its map and created pockets of territory which the State has never consolidated.

Adding to these contrasts are gorgeous landscapes in the background, incredible human diversity, and climates that change at every turn in the road with altitude or latitude… and vallenato everywhere, a type of Latin music that could well be declared the official soundtrack of Colombian life in general.

Since I arrived in Colombia three weeks ago for my applied field experience at the media organization Verdad Abierta, I’ve been assaulted by so many voices in search of the truth. I was afraid that my summer would start slowly, but quite the opposite has happened. The very first week I arrived, I was meeting with the Colombian campaign against mines (CCCM), visiting a photo exhibition on the complex situation of coca growing, talking with a representative of the National Protection Unity (an organization that is trying to stop the epidemic of murders of social leaders), interviewing landmine victims from all around the country including learning from a team of American and Colombian doctors how they craft new leg prostheses for them.

Yes, it’s been hectic. Deeply interesting and troubling at the same time. I filled one of my notebooks in just five days with lightning speed, both with hope and despair, redemption and hate, and in three languages (English, French and Spanish). It was just the first taste of this irresistible impulse to repair what has been lost to violence.

This rhythm is also representative of the political developments since my arrival. There is considerable controversy about the requested extradition of the former leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. Seusis Hernández Solarte, with his nom de guerre Jesus Santrich, was released from jail in Colombia on May 30th, one year after he was charged with drug trafficking by a US court.

This story shows how fragile is the political participation of the former guerrilleros, as well as the complex connections between political actors, armed groups and potentially narcotraffic. Even more worrying, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the judicial mechanism agreed to in the Colombian Peace Accord, has come under attack from the government, which has questioned the framework for transitional justice, a fundamental element of the accord.

In parallel, the fear of “false positives” has also been reactivated. The name stems from the outrageous series of murders of innocent civilians who were killed and presented to the authorities as members of the guerrillas in order to receive benefits and promotions. This occurred as a result of incentives and pressure of a government security policy to increase attacks on fighters between 2002 and 2010. At the end of May 2019, military documents were leaked to the New York Times showing commanders were again ordered to “double the results” of their combat operations. Americans in Vietnam, Belgians in colonial Congo: trying to increase the body counts on paper has led to atrocities in many other theaters of war. Colombia seems like a repetition of the same nightmare.

I know. It’s a lot of details for a Colombia 101 blog post. But this is how my brain is wired: learn as much as I can about the context when I arrive somewhere. I could tell you all about the new exotic fruits I’ve been trying, the tamales and hot broth Colombians eat for breakfast, but I’m worried these details will be lost in more troubling matters.

Part of the false positive scheme was also arbitrary detention of civilians. The pattern was most often the same for everyone: they were accused by hooded informants to be part of the guerrilla, jailed for months and then released with no charge against them. My first assignment for Verdad Abierta, the Colombian media organization where I am doing my applied field experience this summer, was to report on an investigation of these arbitrary detentions. I published my first article in Spanish on their platform last week and am preparing to do more.

In addition to writing in Spanish, I am also translating some of their articles to English, as well as researching a repertory of resources for journalistic training, publishing, and funding, and beginning a diagnostic on their social media use. The overall goal is to build bridges between journalistic communities. My key underlying question is: how can journalism foster peace? How does this play out for Colombian journalists?

During the presentation of an investigation by the organization Dejusticia, regarding the arbitrary detention of civilians, I could not help feeling disappointed by how these people had been treated by the media. Headlines were labeling them as part of the guerrillas, while they had never been charged with anything, leaving a big blank in police and court records, but a stain and social stigma that lasts until this day. If journalists were writing “the first rough draft of history,” it was a rather very poor one!

This brings me to another big question I’ve been reflecting on during my first year of the Rotary Peace Fellowship. I’m wondering about the way societies can find a common version of their history after so many years of violence, a common narrative that can help reconciliation.

For this purpose, I have knocked on the door of the Truth Commission – not literally but through a phone call – and I was received by one of the investigators. “From the very first day, victims of the conflict came to us to tell their stories,” he said. Simultaneously, in the backdrop of his office, I could hear an army of keyboards typing, the soothing sound of hearts and minds opening to this quest of truth, a concert celebrating this endeavor. Who did what? When? Why were civilians stuck in the crossfire? Can there be official acknowledgment? Or reparations?

I’m not fooled; it is going to be a hard enterprise. But the flow has started and won’t be easy to silence. I am keeping my ears and my eyes open to these voices – as well as my notebooks – and promise to be back with tons of stories to share.

As of now, I’m outside of Bogotá, following and talking to people who are demining specific zones in the Huila department. They are “liberating land,” as one of them puts it. The gestures, centimeters by centimeters, to make sure a field is decontaminated can seem very repetitive, but definitely not in vain. Farmers are today plowing fields that they feared just months ago. Whole communities regain access to off-limits places. And for once, it doesn’t seem that this country has countless fronts of war, but expanding fronts of peace.

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