Colombia war victims urge wary compatriots to back difficult peace talks

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 26 February 2015 18:17 GMT

Colombians divided over whether peace deal is possible and how many concession to make to rebels

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From a mother whose son was killed by government forces, and a woman whose four siblings were dismembered by paramilitaries, to a child forced to join the rebel ranks, victims of the Colombian conflict are calling for unity in support of peace efforts.

But, as two-year-old peace talks in Cuba move slowly forward, Colombians remain deeply divided over whether a peace deal is possible, and how far the government should insist that Marxist rebels, and its own forces, face justice.

Three previous attempts by the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to negotiate an end to 50 years of conflict and 200,000 deaths have ended in failure and Colombians are wary of predicting success this time.

An opinion poll last month showed that only 47 percent of Colombians believed the talks would end in a peace deal and result in the 8,000 FARC guerrillas laying down their weapons.

Sixty of those who have suffered at the hands of state security forces, right-wing paramilitary groups or Marxist rebels have travelled to the Cuban capital over the past six months in five groups to give testimony to the negotiators.

Some had been kidnapped or raped, others had relatives killed in rebel bomb attacks or 'disappeared'. They represented seven million people officially listed as war victims, 85 percent of them people displaced by the conflict.

"I went to Havana so that we can record and remember the bloodshed. The war has broken our hearts into a thousand pieces," said Maria Victoria Liu on the sidelines of a recent conference in downtown Bogota, hosted by her and six other war victims who had spoken at the Havana talks.

"We must raise our voices. We must make visible the human rights violations and the ongoing violence suffered by Afro-Colombians," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

VICTIMS' RIGHTS

So far, negotiators have reached agreement on three of the five points on their peace agenda - land reform, the FARC's participation in political life, and the drug trade.

They are now discussing victims' rights, including how best to honour and compensate victims, and how to establish what happened to those who disappeared or were killed. Agreement on this is expected soon.

Jaime Pena is clamouring for a peace accord. His 16-year-old son was one of 32 young people killed by a paramilitary group in 1998.

"The greatest reparation for victims is peace. We told the negotiators: Don't get up from the table until you reach a peace deal," Pena said.

The victims say the next key challenge is getting other Colombians to support the closed-door peace talks.

"We went to Havana to build peace. There we found a willingness and commitment to finding peace. Now the battle we have to fight is against those detractors and those opposed to the peace process," said Wilfredo Landa, a human rights campaigner who fled his home last year after receiving death threats from the FARC.

"To the enemies of peace I say we have to unite for peace. We don't want any more deaths and massacres."

PEACE AT WHAT COST?

Any final peace deal could be put before Colombian voters for approval in a referendum.

As part of efforts to whip up support for the Havana talks, government negotiators have been hosting forums across Colombia in recent months.

In September the government published the full text of accords reached so far, addressing complaints by opposition politicians that the peace process was not transparent and that a deal might enable rebel leaders to escape punishment for carrying out atrocities.

While the vast majority of war-weary Colombians want peace, the terms of a peace accord are being hotly debated among lawmakers, state prosecutors and society at large.

Two thorny issues are what, if any, jail sentences FARC leaders should face, and whether they can hold political offices in future.

The lead FARC negotiator, Ivan Marquez, reiterated this week that the guerrillas would serve 'zero' jail time.

The use of terror tactics by the guerrillas, such as bombing civilian targets and holding hostages captive in jungle camps for up to 12 years, has left many Colombians wondering what, if any, concessions should be made to the rebel group.

Finding a balance between victims' and society's thirst for justice for the abuses committed by both the FARC and state security forces, and the rebels' resistance to punishment, is crucial to a lasting peace, experts say.

Many city dwellers, for whom a conflict concentrated in remote rural and jungle areas is out of sight and out of mind, are ambivalent towards the peace talks and are more concerned about jobs, good education and healthcare.

"It was a personal challenge for me to meet with the FARC, who have sown terror for years," said Francia Marquez, a displaced community leader.

"But peace is the challenge and responsibility of all Colombians. That's the message I took to Havana."

(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Tim Pearce)

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