Colombia soul searches on reconciliation and peace ahead of election

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 16 May 2014 16:57 GMT

Residents light candles for those killed in a bomb attack blamed on FARC rebels on a police station in Cauca province December 7, 2013. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

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Amid a closely fought presidential race and a peace process, Colombians are considering if they are ready to forgive FARC and other armed groups for their war crimes

Colombian lawmaker Alan Jara knows how hard it is to forgive.

He was kidnapped by rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2001 and held hostage for seven-and-a-half years.

During his captivity, Jara was chained around the ankle and tied to a tree in jungle camps and forced to undergo weeks-long marches through mountainous terrain. The guerrilla group released him in 2009.

Since his release, Jara, who was re-elected for the second time as governor of Meta province, has been a vocal proponent of reconciliation and forgiveness to heal war wounds as the government and the FARC hold peace talks in Cuba.

"For peace to exist, Colombians have no option but to forgive," Jara told Thomson Reuters Foundation, speaking on the sidelines of an event in Bogota.

"Forgiveness is an individual act and process. If you don’t overcome the anger, pain and fear within you, you’ll continue to be a victim. The main point is to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, that there are no more victims in Colombia," he said.

Fifty years of war between government troops, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, fuelled by the cocaine trade, has left more than 220,000 dead and forced 5.7 million people to flee their homes.

Colombia’s presidential elections on May 25 are the first to take place amid a peace process.

For some voters, the choice is likely to come down to the candidates' position on negotiations with the Marxist FARC rebels.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who is running for re-election, initiated talks with the guerrilla group in October 2012. His main rival Oscar Ivan Zuluaga has criticised the peace process and said he would demand concessions, including a ceasefire, from the rebels before continuing talks, a condition FARC leadership has rejected.

The closely fought presidential race and the peace process have prompted soul searching among Colombians as people consider if they are ready - and willing - to forgive the FARC and other armed groups for their war crimes.

It’s a question Jara is still grappling with, five years after his release from captivity.

"That’s a really complicated question to answer," Jara sighed, when asked if he has forgiven his FARC captors.

"There are still moments when I feel anger. As a governor, I visit schools and I see children aged seven to fourteen running around and playing. That causes me pain because I didn’t have the chance to see my son growing up like that. I missed those seven-and-a-half years of my son’s life while I was in captivity," he said.

Forgiveness is not just between the illegal armed groups and their victims but between the state and society at large, says Jara.

Government security forces have committed human rights abuses against civilians during the half-century war. Marginalised communities in conflict rural areas across Colombia have felt abandoned by the state and say they were left at the mercy of armed groups.

"We need to seek reconciliation between the state and society. It’s fundamental that the state reaches those regions hardest hit by the conflict," Jara told an audience of war victims, journalists and business leaders.

As governor of the oil-rich Meta province, Jara says the lack of trust towards the government, fuelled by corruption and an ineffectual justice system, is an obstacle to peace in Colombia.

"We need to recover trust in the institutions of this country. It’s in the rural regions among local communities that reconciliation starts. We need to fight against corruption and impunity in the justice system that generates disdain and distrust among people," Jara said.

His words were echoed by Angelino Garzon, Colombia’s vice-president speaking at the same event.

"When we talk about reconciliation we talk about a lot of pain. Colombia is overloaded with pain … violence has also come from the state. Reconciliation is linked to forgiveness and linked to our country’s future. Peace is possible," Garzon said.

"But peace has powerful enemies in this country. One of those enemies is corruption … corruption has served many public officials."

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