Grassroots Peacebuilding and Reconciliation

by Michaela Söllinger, IFOR Austria

(This article was also published with minor changes in the Austrian magazine Spinnrad, Vol. 4 (2019))

Picture 1: Sunset over Guaviare harbor

Picture 2: Fishing pond in main hamlet of San José de León

How does reconciliation happen? How does a community begin to build a story of peace? How do ex-combatants reconnect with their communities, when it is these same communities that have suffered from the conflict?

During a recent trip to Colombia (July to October 2019) I was able to witness active reconciliation work, even if only for a short moment. Despite many shortcomings and problems with the 2016 Peace Accords between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP (then the largest and oldest guerrilla group in Latin America), many initiatives to promote reconciliation between communities and individuals are currently being carried out in Colombia. In order to gain better insight, I chose two specific activities–the word and textile work–to better understand how communities and individuals are engaging in the process of post-conflict reconciliation.


San José de Guaviare – Tukanos Orientales

Picture 3: Fishing in Guaviare

Guaviare is a department in the southeast of Colombia that is sparsely populated by indigenous peoples, small-scale farmers and some large-scale landowners. A newly paved road between various shades of green leads to San José de Guaviare. The capital of Guaviare is located in the middle of a savannah alongside the River Guaviare, named in accordance with it’s capital city. Upon closer inspection, the shades of green mostly turn out to be large-scale cattle pastures or newly planted oil palm plantations. Original steppe grass, the famous water reservoirs of the savannah with their moriche palms and the receeding Amazon rainforest can be seen on the wide horizon. On the outskirts of San José de Guaviare is the Panuré Indigenous Reserve, where several indigenous communities of the Tukanos Orientales met for the first “Intercultural Peace and Reconciliation Meeting between ex-FARC fighters and the Tukanos Orientales Reserves of the Department of Guaviare”.

So, who are the Tukanos Orientales? Marcelo, an indigenous teacher, explained their history to me with the drawing below, which was also on the drinking bowl that we received for the occasion.

Picture 4: Drinking bowl

“This is a rock drawing from the Vaupés Department (Amazonia, which shares a border with Brazil) from the village of Piedra Ñi, and means black stone. It is in this place, where the equator crosses the rock, that our grandparents considered the center of the world. There, the creators of the universe made this drawing, which represents all the peoples of the Tukanos Orientales: the celestial people, the earth people, the aquatic people, the anaconda and stone people. It embodies the frogman and the guacamayo birdman. If you look at the drawing from one side, you can see a head and a torso. If you turn the drawing, you can see the person in the middle of the world. These are the Tukanos Orientales.”

During the event, around 200 indigenous people from the Panuré, Itilla, El Refugio, La Fuga and Asunción reserves met for the first time with around 50 recently demobilized FARC members from the surrounding reintegration areas of Las Charras and Las Colinas, a newly-settled area where demobilized guerrilla fighters lived together after the peace agreement was signed. In the Panuré’s Community Center, Gabriel Muyuy, UN High Commissioner advisor on ethnic issues in Colombia, initiated a public conversation defined as, “Getting to Know Each Other, Acknowledgement and First Agreements”. Gabriel is indigenous to the Inga people who, like the Tukanos Orientales, have their origins in the Amazon region. His work to advocate for greater indigenous participation in regional, national and international politics has granted him deep respect throughout the region, enabling him to create an atmosphere of trust. The event began with a spiritual event the day prior, with 250 participants. On the first day of the talks, a dried fruit bowl with mambé – roasted, crushed coca leaves – made rounds, while participants began to get to know each other through group storytelling.

Getting to know each other: Several demobilized FARC members stepped, one by one, into the middle of the meeting house to share parts of their story with the audience: How and why they had left their community and their territory, what they experienced during their time as FARC members, and encounters with their own people, even their own community or family, during this time. In response, leaders from the indigenous reserves shared how they experienced the conflict as civilians and the challenges they are currently facing (apart from social conflicts, there are still several armed groups active in the region).

In addition, basic rights that are shared by all indigenous people (both ex-combatants as well as civilians) were refreshed in a joint ceremony. While indigenous rights encompass three areas–autonomy, territory and cultural identity–the Colombian state often does not fulfill them. Both ex-combatants and civilians alike expressed their concern over the lack of compliancy regarding territorial rights. Several reserves have been waiting for their territories to expand for many years due to a lack of space. The problem is complex, and even more complicated due to the semi-nomadic nature of the Tukanos Orientales peoples. Do reserves make sense for semi-nomaid people? Does the right to autonomy in a specified territory?

As the event went on, it became evident that participants  primarily wanted to define their indigenous identity by ideas of conscience, self-image and belonging, and expressed a desire to accept and strengthen this identity.

Recognition: After careful listening and reflection, all the participants seemed to have reached a consensus about the need to use the different life experiences to face the challenges of the Tukanos Orientales together. Before the participants euphorically moved on to the next step, Gabriel Muyuy sounded a note of caution and a reminder to include and recognize the knowledge of previous generations. He explained that one of these insights, which he had always dismissed as meaningless as a teenager, is summarized in one of his people’s guiding principles as: “As long as we live, we should think carefully in order to live well (Mientras vivamos, pensamos bien para vivir bien).” He invited those present to recall the principles of their own ancestors and warned of overzealous agreements and promises.

Picture 5: Group discussions in the community house

Agreement: After a night of celebration and Walking, a traditional dance of the Tukanos Orientales, the participants were invited to share their findings and to name topics that they would like to work on together with everyone. The day started with a proposal that was met with the greatest approval. The proposal suggested finding a new way to refer to ex-combatant fighters. “We don’t want to call them ex-fighters anymore; we now see them as something different.”

The day concluded with an agreement to set up a committee, which includes both representatives from the reservations as well as demobilized FARC fighters, and which would commit to finding a new way to refer to indigenous ex-combatants.


San José de León, Antioquia – Small scale farmers

Picture 6: Main hamlet of San José de León

San José de León is embedded on green hills only about five kilometers away from the Ruta del Sol (a highway project running between Medellin and Turbo, currently under construction) and which will ultimately connect inland Colombia to it’s Caribbean ports.

At the opening of the exhibition “(Des)tejiendo Miradas” (in English, [Un]weaving views) San José de León presented itself as a vivid, emerging rural zone which, only two years prior, became home to approximately one hundred demobilized guerrilla fighters, some of them with families. At the end of October 2017, the former guerrilla fighters left the reintegration area they had been assigned to, due to the lack of productive projects that could lead to independent and sustainable livelihoods. They came and built homes in the area which would later become San José de León. Before this, there were approximately 500 families living on farms scattered throughout the countryside, with a small school on the edge of a river. Today, San José de León has become a busy village with a lively community life and is considered one of the most successful integration projects to emerge after the 2016 peace agreements.

The road leading into the hamlet arrives at the meeting house, where we eagerly awaited the opening words of the exhibition.


Picture 7: The exhibition hall

The exhibition was installed in a wooden house where local community members gathered before the opening. 

Rubén, a local political leader representing the newest residents (demobilized FARC fighters and their families) opened the exhibition with a speech, emphasizing the importance of working together with the original residental population. Rubén went on to state that when demobilized guerrilla fighters first arrived, they received warm welcome from the original residents. They did not allow themselves to be intimidated or influenced by rumors from outside, and instead continuously supported the former FARC fighters in their plans to rebuild a civilian life. Rubén is convinced that a prospect for a long-term civil life would not have been possible for the demobilized FARC without this initial support and participation from the original residents.

Other demobilized residents also talked about the many times they had been tempted to give up their new ways of life. The open arms and the acceptance that the original residents of San José de Leon had always showed them significantly contributed to their ability to persevere and actively commitment to peace.

This warm reception has been reciprocated by the ex-combatants, as Maribel, president of the council of original residents, emphasized in her speech. This reciprocity allowed the entire population to benefit from international programs and projects which arose after the peace treaties, in a region which has long suffered from the presence of armed groups and a chronic absence of social services, like health and education. Hence, the river that connects the old school with the new hamlet is now part of a new joint ecotourism project and the freshly trained nature guides, including Maribel, are waiting for the first visitors.

Maribel was also able to take part in the “(Des) tejiendo Miradas” project. In cooperation with various national and international universities, individual memories were discussed and illustrated with the help of textile works. For Maribel, old stories were unwoven and new ones woven. She says, “The next story we write will no longer be about an era of violence, but we will tell how we weave a new fabric (also understood as social fabric), with our hands, how  we will have built a new history of this rural area. This also includes the trust that will we have built between the long-established, who were born here and the new members of the community.”

A former guerrilla fellow described the one-year process of creating the textile pieces as follows, ‘When I went to the workshop, I thought we would learn textile work, that is, the technology. Now I know that it was not so much about learning to weave, knit or sew, but that they had another goal in mind, which is now very important to me. Through weaving we can express our own story, events we suffered from, what we saw with our own eyes, what each of us felt. So I learned something new every day, and you can see that in the work.’

Others said that working with textiles allowed them to take a breath, to get–at least for a moment–rid of their frustrations and their worries, something they often can’t find the right words for. In this sense, the participants and artists encouraged us to interpret the pictures ourselves and let the textiles tell the stories.

Finally, we could access the exhibition. In the wooden house there were various framed pictures on the walls, arranged according to subject groups such as reconciliation or uncertainties (see pictures).

Picture 8: Reconciliation

Picture 9: Reconciliation tree

Picture 10: Uncertainties

In the middle of the room, photographs printed on textiles, with stitched silhouettes showed most important stages of the past three years in the history of the ex-fighters; starting from the jungle camps, through the demobilization areas, to their lives in San José de León.


At this point I followed the instructions of the artists: The pictures should speak for themselves, the stories are in the pictures, and what the viewer sees.



Notes from the Peace Community: FORista Writes Home After Leaving Urabá

by FORPP Accompanier Gale Stafford

Para español, haz clic aquí

October 20th, 2014

Dear Friends,

I’m back, I swear I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth! (Or even permanently left Colombia!). It’s a busy time, but considering that I found a drafted email to you all from July that I felt was late then, I figure now is about as good a time as any to update you as to how things have been going (since May… almost six months ago…).

So May and June together almost marked the end of my time in the Peace Community. In the end of June, I had an unfortunate pair of incidents of theft of my bag (read: every important document, camera, and notebook, plus a couple other sacred objects – I’m physically fine, just irritated and a little shallower, wallet-wise) plus bug bites serious enough to need to get treated and healed a bit, and so got sucked to the big city of Bogotá for a couple of weeks to get everything in order. From there I had a brief return to the rural Community area, followed by a wonderful visit from my dear friend Heather, another brief stint in the Community, and zipped back to Bogotá. Since then it’s been a bit of a whirlwind, and I just haven’t gotten to scribble down my latest thoughts.


So because it is absolutely, utterly impossible for me to even summarize everything that has gone on in the last six months (sideways lookinatchu, stolen journal…), I’m going to take the remainder of this email recounting about the end of my time in the Community, and will tell more about things afterwards, and life in Bogotá, starting next time. So below, in no particular order, are notes in homage to and reflection on the nine months of my life in the village of La Unión, part of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. And after re-reading it, I’m realizing it’s a little epic again. Oops. It has been six months, so there’s that… Anyway.

Apuntes de la Comunidad de Paz: FORista escribe a casa después de salir de Urabá

por Gale Stafford, acompañante de FORPP

For English, click here

El 20 de octubre, 2014

Queridxs amigxs,

Ya volví, y ¡les prometo que no me he caído del superficie de la tierra! (¡Ni salido permanentemente de Colombia!) Es un tiempo ocupado, pero considerando que encontré un ensayo a todxs ustedes del julio que me sentía estaba ya atrasado ahí, creo que ya es hora tan buena como cualquier otra a actualizarles de cómo me han pasado las cosas (desde mayo… hace casi seis meses…).

Entonces mayo y junio juntos casi marcaron los finales de mi tiempo en la Comunidad de Paz. A finales de junio, tuve un par de indicentes desafortunados del robo de mi bolso (lean: cada documento importante, cámara, y cuaderno, más unos otros objetos sagrados – estoy bien físicamente, solo irritada y un poco menos profunda, de manera billetera) más unas picaduras tan graves que necesitaban tratamiento y un poco de curación, y entonces me mandaron hasta la gran ciudad de Bogotá por unas semanas para arreglar todo. De ahí tenía una vuelta breve al área rural de la Comunidad, seguida por una visita maravillosa de mi amiga querida Heather, otro tiempito en la Comunidad, y me fui de una de regreso a Bogotá. Desde ahí ha sido un poco torbellino, y solo que no he podido garabatear mis pensamientos más recientes.


Tormentas en La Unión, Comunidad de Paz

Click here for English

De repente, la vida en La Unión, parte de la Comunidad de Paz, puede convertirse en turbulenta. Las cosas han estado muy tranquilo recientemente, entonces la mayoría de los disturbios vienen en la forma de una manada de caballos quienes han organizado sus propias carreras corriendo por la casa, o intentando a ubicar el helicóptero encima pero encontrando solamente un colibrí o dos bien ruidosos. Pero a veces los disturbios cambian en huracanes y son un poco menos maravillosos.

El miércoles pasado y hasta el jueves golpeó una tormenta enorme en La Unión. La lluvia caía en cortinas en los techos de zinc y creaba un enrejado de quebradas miniaturas entre todas las casas. Los vendavales arrancaron por el caserío, sacando cosas y tumbándolas, mientras que los relámpagos golpearon por lo menos dos secadoras. La Unión ya sigue sin luz por más que 13 días.

El mismo miércoles, una tormenta de otra variedad llegó cuando los primeros diecisiete soldados de la Brigada Móvil 24 pasaron por La Unión. Ni unos minutos después, más llegaron a través, y más. En total, sobre 50 pasaron por el caserío.

La Comunidad de Paz se fundó hace más que diecisiete años por principios específicamente removiendo a los miembros de la Comunidad del conflicto. Incluye no provenir ningún apoyo logístico a ningún actor armado ni tenerlos dentro de espacios comunitarios, no tener ni apoyar armas de ningún tipo y decir “no”a la injusticia y la impunidad. En el medio de una de las zonas más calientes, más combativos de Colombia, la Comunidad se unió y declaró que los miembros eran afuera, y respetuosamente pidieron que desde allí, los actores de cualquier grupo armado eviten el área. Se consedó medidas primero cautelares, y entonces provisionales de la Corte Interamericana que las protegen y validan este estándar. La última vez que demoraban unas fuerzas militares en frente de las casas de La Unión fue hace sobre seis años.

Esta vez los soldados pasaron justamente como otro hurracán. Cuando representantes de la Comunidad y acompañantes de FOR, quienes también viven en La Unión, fueron para hablar con unos de ellos, sus líderes hablaron en tonos respetuosos mientras reconocer que aunque habían visto las vallas de la Comunidad antes (que marcan la tierra y listan los principios de la Comunidad), eligieron de todos modos caminar por allí. Dijeron que estaban esperando apoyo de uno de sus soldados, quien estaba enfermo, y que lo habían dejado en el otro lado del caserío. No importa que esta era todavía la tierra que trabaja la Comunidad, y que no eran permitidos estar allí incluso antes de que se enfermaba. Cuando uno de los grupos más pequeños paró para descansar cerca de la malla, pero todavía dentro, y de nuevo les hablaron, unos soldados se disculparon por estar en la Comunidad. Otros se negaron de disculparse y declararon, “¡Este es Colombia!”y “Lo que pasa al enfermo es responsabilidad de ustedes.” Cuando otro soldado empezó a cruzar, después de la mayoría de su tropa había ido, y se acercaron aún más miembros de la Comunidad, postuló, “Bueno, los otros pasaron por aquí, entonces yo, también,” y así hizo.

La Comunidad de Paz significa justo eso – un espacio por la no guerra. Según la teoría de la Comunidad, donde hay un grupo de actores armados, incluso militares, seguro que siguen los otros grupos armados. Para evitar el conflicto, la Comunidad ha escogido evitar los actores armados totalmente, y en vez de eso convivir y trabajar juntos, para crear la paz que ven por este mundo. Y después de diecisiete años de declararse así y vivir sus principios, todavía hay violaciones de sus esperanzas y sus derechos.


Para español, haz clic aquí

Once again it is confirmed that there are no guarantees to exercise the right to object in the army.

Last Friday, July 11, at 2:30pm, two members of Collective Action of Conscientious Objectors (Acción Colectiva de Objetores y Objetoras de Consciencia, or ACOOC) and two international observers from FOR Peace Presence met with Colonel Zambrano, Lieutenant Alarcón, and Major Medina, all members of the Reveíz Pizarro Battalion located in Saravena, Arauca.

The objectives of the meeting were: 1) To verify the status and conditions in which Jefferson Shayanne is exercising his fundamental right to conscientious objection; 2) To notify those in charge of the battalion of the accompaniment that he is being provided; 3) To inform those in charge of the battalion of the national and international recommendations for the exercising of this right that they should be respecting; 4) For Jefferson to be able to turn in the military equipment that was assigned to him, given that in his position as a conscientious objector he cannot be forced to wear a uniform or carry a gun.

With regard to these objectives, we conclude the following from our visit:

The conditions under which Jefferson Shayanne is exercising his right are clearly adverse to his position as an objector, and do not establish any guarantee of his right. Firstly, since Jefferson expressed his status as an objector and made his declaration public, his right has been suppressed and he has been questioned constantly about his reasons. Even in our presence, Col. Zambrano askedJefferson what he would do if the “enemy” were suddenly to attack the battalion. “I would hide” was Jefferson´s response, a statement that baffled the soldiers present. We reminded them that based on that statement, Jefferson is a conscientious objector, not a soldier, being held against his will at a military facility.

Based on this suppression of his rights, we also confirmed that Jefferson has and continues to be treated as a soldier, despite his constant dialogue and communications to make clear his refusal to be in the battalion because he is a conscientious objector. In the words of Colonel Zambrano, “Jefferson was a soldier from the moment they recorded him in the registry as such, and he cannot be treated any other way.”

After verifying the adverse conditions impeding the guarantee of Jefferson’s right, the military officials present were notified of our accompaniment and of the national and international recommendations that exist for the protection of this right. Nevertheless, Colonel Zambrano made it clear that they will only respect these recommendations when they receive an order certifying that Jefferson is a conscientious objector and therefore must be discharged.

One of the most important international recommendations is that a conscientious objector cannot be forced to carry or handle weapons or military equipment. In Jefferson’s case, this has not been respected. When Jefferson has tried to turn in his weapon, the response he gets is that they cannot take it, and should he leave it with them, the weapon could be lost and he would then have to assume the serious implications that would follow. For this reason, we proposed that he be able to turn in his gun and uniform, and that one member of ACOOC and one member of FOR PP would sign as witnesses.  Colonel Zambrano and the other military officials present refused to accept that option, arguing that “until receiving certification that Jefferson is a conscientious objector, he will continue being treated as a soldier, and therefore must keep his weapon, equipment, and uniform.”

In the end, the position of the military personnel present in the meeting was to not treat Jefferson as an objector until receiving an official document that certifies him as such. In their judgment, the reasons given by Jefferson do not immediately make him an objector. According to them, the religious and humanitarian beliefs that he holds are also held by other members of the battalion, and furthermore, in the words of Lieutenant William Ovaldo Romo to Jefferson: “Someone can kill a person, then go to church, pray, and ask for forgiveness, and nothing happens… religion is not an excuse not to perform military service.”

As ACOOC, from this statement on, we want to be clear about our concern for the conditions under which Jefferson is exercising his fundamental right to object. We consider that the pressure that Jefferson constantly receives (demonstrated by acts such as waking him up one day at 3 AM, forcing him to put on his uniform, and sitting him alone in a room to explain to him why he should give up his convictions based on all the advantages that being a soldier has) does not allow him to fully exercise his right.

We also consider that their communication with us, in which they declared that only when there is an “official certification” will they give Jefferson the treatment of a conscientious objector, omits all of the international recommendations. The absence of a certification or similar document is not an excuse to violate a fundamental right. None of the other recognized forms of conscientious objection in the constitution depend on a document to be respected. It is evident that there is a lack of recognition by the military, and consequently a total absence of guarantees to exercise this right within military facilities.

We urge human rights organizations, through means of communication, networks, and organized social platforms, to show their support for this young man who decided to refuse to be part of a cycle of violence in one of the most questionable battalions in the country.


Collective Action of Conscientious Objectors

FOR Peace Presence