Celebrating Small Wins Toward Reconciliation in Colombia
Earlier this year, on June 27, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) turned in 7,000 firearms to the United Nations as they concluded their disarmament and ended a war that lasted five decades, took 220,000 lives, and left 8.4 million people the victims of its violence.
Contrary to what I expected, the day came and went without much fanfare. Many people interviewed by local media didn’t even know the disarmament took place.
“Today is a historic day, but don’t forget that out in the field, ACDI/VOCA is achieving milestones everyday toward reconciliation. We must celebrate these small victories.”
I took his words to heart, as I started to see project developments and positive encounters with communities as small, yet concrete steps on the bumpy road to reconciliation.
As in most post-conflict settings, Colombia has seen landmark moments followed by major setbacks. A sense of apathy—or sometimes polarized ideologies of different groups—tend to overshadow landmark moments. PAR focuses on countering negativity and contention with positive stories of communities working together to build trust and respect through dialogue.
A Grieving City Rebuilds
In 2002, a clash between the FARC and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) left 79 people dead and an entire population of 10,000 people displaced. Bojayá is the only city in Colombia where all residents are officially recognized as victims of the armed conflict by the national government. Fifteen years later, the city continues to rebuild. However, with few public resources, the local government has limited capacity to implement reconciliation projects. That’s why PAR partners with the mayor’s office in Bojayá to foster dialogue and trust between the local community and public officials.
A few months ago, I asked Mayor Jeremias Moreno Alvarez what ACDI/VOCA’s support has achieved in Bojayá.
“Trust. Before, there was a growing distance between the administration and certain communities. This process has linked us back together, making it possible for the administration, victims, and human rights defense groups to sit down and speak in the same language for the sake of improving socioeconomic conditions of our people.” –Mayor Jeremias Moreno Alvarez
On the Path Toward Peace
With PAR’s support, the local government of Bojayá secured resources to support a community-led initiative focused on memory-building by building a nature path that runs from the abandoned town of Bellavista, whose population was displaced after the massacre, to the new town Bojayá. Other PAR projects in Bojayá focus on improving healthcare infrastructure, gender equality, and economic inclusion.
This year, a victims’ rights committee and government institutions began the emotional process of exhuming bodies to identify the remains of massacre victims and provide them with proper burials. ACDI/VOCA works with the community to ensure the process incorporates ancestral Afro-Colombian rituals and songs. PAR also helps increase the capacity of the victims’ rights committee to communicate information on victims’ reparation processes to the rest of the community.
During a ceremony commemorating the 2002 massacre, a young woman said to me:
“We will never forget those who died, and, on this day, we remember and honor them. But this commemoration is also about hope, the future, and how to transcend what happened here.”
In my five years working with ACDI/VOCA in Colombia, I’ve had the opportunity to travel all around the country, meeting people and communities that embody resilience. There are countless families and communities, like the ones in Bojayá, that have suffered from repression, violence, and personal loss. Yet they are the last to raise their voices and fists in revenge and the first to convey messages of hope for the future. In a country striving to overcome polarization and a violent past, that’s no small victory.
Katherine Ko has lived and worked in Latin America for 11 years, with five years of experience working in international development with ACDI/VOCA in Colombia. As the information and communications manager for the Program of Alliances for Reconciliation (PAR), Katherine reports to its funder USAID and contributes to strategic communications for a diverse audience, particularly through multimedia storytelling, photography, writing, and reporting. Previously, Katherine supported ACDI/VOCA’s Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Program (ACIP) to raise awareness of the positive development of ethnic minorities in Colombia. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of California, Irvine, and is fluent in Spanish and proficient in French and Portuguese.