In Colombia, the spoilers of peace may not be the veterans of war

Colombian sculptor Alex Sastoque’s work was central to the demobilization ceremony last week in Colombia. Image: El Comercio.

Symbols are the superstructure of society. Nations form and crust around creation myths. Wars are executed in pursuit of some (imagined) glorious past. Every person who lives under a flag can identify stories that have bound them to that cloth. We wrap ourselves around identity-defining symbols of a land, an ideology, a faith. We think in symbols first, and justifying language second.

Sastoque with Peace Commission Co-chair Ángela Robledo.

For that reason, the image captured in El Comercio of two men shaking hands behind a golden assault rifle, its muzzle hammered out into a shovel blade, speaks volumes—even to someone like myself, who has only rudimentary knowledge of the 50 years of civil conflict that has ravaged Colombia and displaced more than five million from their homes in the last two decades.

In the celebration of the collection of more than 7,100 weapons since the peace deal was signed by the Colombian government and leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, last winter. In this golden sculpture, long-denied dreams of peace have converted a ubiquitous tool of war into a vehicle for peace and prosperity.

Yet in Colombia’s case, that symbolic transformation is also quite literal.

Rather than merely changing hands to continue carrying out their design intent, these thousands of weapons are being boxed up and shipped out of the country to be melted down into war monuments that will be planted in Colombia, New York, and Cuba, centers of negotiation during the peacebuilding process.

In their coverage of the demobilization ceremony last week, The New York Times decided to spotlight the challenge some former FARC members may experience living without their weapons. (“For every guerrilla fighter, their weapon has always been their most loyal friend, which has always accompanied them,” one former rebel told the paper. “Some people have names for their rifle.”)

Being in Ecuador at this time to study conflict transformation (more on program here), offers some perspective on the process I wouldn’t have gained otherwise.

Peace in Colombia is of vital interest in Ecuador, where an estimated 260,000 Colombians have come to live, 60,000 who are recognized refugees of the conflict and another 90,000 who are considered in need of international protection.

However, contrary to the Times’ suggestion, it may not be the veterans of the war that have the hardest time accepting peace. One of the major concerns of the demobilization process is the challenge of reintegration: that, the question of how (or if) fellow Colombians will receive the rebels after they move on from their demobilization camps.

It could be, as Colombian human-rights attorney Alejandra Ceballos and Ecuadorian Diana Córdova, a student of conflict transformation (two of my Conflict Transformation Across Borders colleagues), that those Colombians who have suffered the least who pose the greatest threat to peaceful reintegration.

Speaking from her experience working with the victims of the conflict, Ceballos said it is typically those who have suffered the most who are most ready for peace.

“The responsibility of everyone is to ‘change the chip,’” she said, “to change their mindset.”

Beyond disarmament, the Colombian peace agreement addresses a number of contributing and root causes of the conflict, including:

Courts: Those accused of crimes in the conflict will go before special courts and could get reduced sentences if they confess. Most are expected to do so. Those who do not face up to 20 years in jail. The FARC has pledged to use its assets to compensate victims.

Drugs: The FARC have promised to help stamp out the drug production that has fueled the conflict in areas under its control. The state promised to develop alternative sources of revenue for growers of coca, the raw ingredient of cocaine.

Land: Land rights for poor rural communities were at the root of the conflict when it erupted in 1964. The accord promises land, credit lines and basic services for rural communities, with millions of dollars of investment.

Politics: The FARC will transform into a political party, with five seats in each chamber of congress granted to it under the accord. FARC members could win more seats in the 2018 elections. Their candidates are granted protection against possible attack by groups opposed to the accord.