BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tackling discrimination against former combatants, getting companies to employ them and promoting reconciliation are key challenges Colombia faces in helping demobilised fighters return to civilian life, the chief presidential adviser on reintegration said.
Over the past decade, 56,000 fighters from illegal armed groups on both sides of Colombia’s war - leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries - have laid down their weapons, and 31,533 of them were enrolled in the government’s reintegration programme last year, according to official figures.
If talks now under way in Havana between the government and the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), result in an end to Latin America's longest-running insurgency, thousands more rebels could soon hand in their weapons.
But former fighters, who are often viewed as hardened criminals by society, are finding it hard to win social acceptance as civilians.
“There’s still a big stigma attached to IDPs (internally displaced people), victims and demobilised combatants,” said Alejandro Eder, government peace negotiator and chief presidential adviser on reintegration.
“There is more willingness in the private sector but they are scared. When you ask a company that has been blackmailed or had people kidnapped by criminal groups, there is reluctance to give demobilised combatants work,” Eder told Thomson Reuters Foundation, speaking on the sidelines of an event in Bogota on Wednesday.
More than 115 companies in Colombia, such as Coca-Cola FEMSA and local supermarket chain Exito, are involved in job training and mentoring programmes for demobilised fighters, few are giving them long-term jobs.
Asked which companies are playing a leading role in employing demobilised fighters on a large scale, “the short answer is: no one,” Eder said.
Eder heads the government’s reintegration programme, which pays ex-fighters a monthly allowance of around $270, providing they attend school and/or university, or free psychological counselling and vocational training schemes.
OBSTACLES TO INTEGRATION
But the 56,000 former fighters, after an average of eight years in the ranks of illegal armed groups, face significant obstacles.
More than half of them are illiterate, and only about 12 percent are employed in the formal sector. Many have to go back to school before looking for work, and those who find jobs often end up with temporary jobs as builders and security guards.
Helping former combatants means not only giving them jobs but also promoting reconciliation to ensure lasting peace, Eder said. This involves forgiveness and building trust between the ex-fighters and the people who they have terrorised for decades.
The decades-long conflict has left 220,000 people dead and forced 5.1 million to leave their homes.
“Without a reconciliation process we can’t build sustainable peace. We can’t have a reconciliation process when victims and victimizers don’t get together. And that’s difficult to do. But we are going to bring different sectors together, like victims, NGOs, with ex-combatants within each region (of Colombia),” said Eder, whose grandfather was kidnapped and killed by FARC rebels.
“We need to shake people up and get them thinking about what happens when a demobilised combatant shows up at their company, who will be their neighbour or who will pray next to them in church,” he said.
NO COLOMBIAN MANDELA
Eder echoed the feeling of many Colombians that there is no figure in Colombia like the late Nelson Mandela, no one who is able to transcend entrenched social and political divides and forge trust between warring factions in the search for peace.
“Different people are taking on small roles in promoting reconciliation but … there’s no Mandela yet in Colombia. We need to create an environment and context where it is more likely for that to happen, for a leader to rise,” Eder said.
On the talks in progress in Havana since November 2012, Eder said he is cautiously optimistic that a peace deal will be reached but did not say when. “We will probably be successful,” he said.
So far, the two sides have reached two partial agreements on land reform and FARCs participation in political life as part of a five-point peace agenda.
Most Colombians welcome the peace talks, but not everyone shares Eder’s optimism that a peace deal can be signed.
Two previous attempts at reaching peace with FARC failed, making many Colombians sceptical about the outlook, and the latest polls show 58 percent of Colombians doubt the talks will succeed.
“It’s normal that people are sceptical. We have 50 years of conflict with the FARC. And the FARC have proven not to be trustworthy in previous peace processes,” Eder said.
“We have to separate the peace process in Havana from peace building in Colombia. Peace building is and will happen regardless of what happens in Havana.”