A key aspect of reconciliation in Colombia is to understand and acknowledge what happened during 60 years of violent and polarised conflict.
Reconciliation involves knowing what happened: why, when, how, by whom and to whom. But information about who did what during the conflict is fraught with confusion. Divisions based on fear have become embedded in Colombian society, particularly as a result of policies implemented during Álvaro Uribe’s presidency (2002–10), when anyone critical of the government was accused of colluding with ‘terrorists’ – the FARC-EP and the National Liberation Army (ELN).
The media have played a key role in exacerbating suspicion and prejudice – demonising the guerrillas while justifying the paramilitary and self-defence groups as legitimate means to destroy the ‘enemy’, such that the gradual corruption of the state seemingly went unnoticed, especially at the local level. In fact, many people struggle to distinguish between armed actors, and atrocities perpetrated by paramilitaries are often wrongly attributed to guerrillas. Colombians have also experienced conflict very differently, depending on where they live, their proximity to the violence, their social conditions and the level of inclusion or exclusion they face, the history they have learnt in school, and their political ideology.
Public consciousness of the diversity of identity and of conflict experience is important for an inclusive society in the future. A considered process of education, information sharing, and truth telling across the country is needed to reflect the diverse cultural, gender-based, political, and religious identities in society. This involves rebuilding history based on accounts of those who experienced the conflict.
In Colombia, significant progress has already been made towards clarifying truth and constructing historical memory – in large part due to the continued commitment of human rights activists to document incidence of extreme and targeted violence, as well as unofficial civil society initiatives around the country.
The work of official processes such as the National Center for Historical Memory is important. Established by law in 2005 under the Uribe administration, it is tasked with contributing to the provision of comprehensive reparations and giving both victims of the conflict and society in general the right to hear the truth. It has been conducting interviews and undertaking research, including travelling to communities and speaking with victims to collect testimony. In 2013, the centre presented the Basta Ya! (Enough!) report, which documented the various forms of violence during fifty years of conflict, the key actors involved in it, and its impact on society.
These are the first attempts to build an accurate record of events distinct from the versions provided by the state. Yet such efforts to piece together fragments of truths have been taking place during continuing conflict. A ceasefire and end to the war was only agreed in Havana on 23 June 2016, and at the time of writing there is an atmosphere of hostility, accusation and suspicion. Many people regard efforts to shed light on events of the conflict as threatening, and reconciliation initiatives as naive, believing that it is not yet possible to trust the FARC-EP. Significantly, human rights violations and displacements have continued during the peace talks. Violence and threats against civil society, including social movements like the Patriotic March (Marcha Patriotica) and Agrarian Summit (Cumbre Agraria), indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups, academics, and reporters, indicate an extremely worrying trend. According to Colombian non-governmental organisation Somos Defensores, 2015 saw a 13 per cent increase in killings of human rights defenders from 2014.
Knowing what happened in the past also builds confidence about future prospects for peace. For example, some sectors of society have never accepted former combatants’ entry into the political arena. Clarifying the reasons for the failure of negotiations with the FARC-EP in 1999–2002 could overcome some current fears on reintegration of ex-combatants, by revealing the shared responsibilities for the breakdown of the talks. The same applies to those involved in other previous peace talks, such as M-19 guerrillas who laid down weapons in 1994: decades later, they still face hostility, even after performing well in public administration.