Walking Toward Peace Amid the War

Jul 31, 2013 | Conscientious Objection, News

War Resisters International
By Emily Schmitz

On July 4, 2013, FOR accompanied the Colombian Association of Conscientious Objectors, ACOOC, during the release of Juan Carlos Poveda Camaro from the army base in Villavicencio, where he had been held, as a declared conscientious objector, for 45 days.

Villavicencio, Colombia — Juan Carlos waits anxiously outside the army base, gazing beyond the chaos of the newly recruited soldiers surrounding him. In black jeans and a loose-fitting t-shirt, he stands quietly apart from them; he is one of the few without military fatigues. Recruited in an illegal street round-up and held for 45 days without seeing his family, today he will finally go home.

Dusk settles slowly, covering the soldiers in a soft purple light as they get in formation, lining up together side-by-side. Tomorrow they will leave the training base to begin their two-year military service. Conscription is mandatory in Colombia, with the exception of a few cases: victims of displacement, sole children and heads of households, physically or mentally disabled, indigenous people. And sometimes, even people like Juan Carlos – self-declared conscientious objectors – are released.

Colombian conscientious objectors uphold the right to refuse mandatory conscription through a constitutional provision (pdf) that details freedom of conscience, guaranteeing that: no one will be importuned on account of his or her convictions or beliefs […] or obligated to act against his or her conscience. But without legal parameters to regulate the law, cases of conscientious objection are confusing and time consuming. With the exception of one officially recognized case, the majority remains unrecognized. There are instead far easier, albeit illegal, ways out of military service: under the guise of mental instability, physical limitations, or simply by paying their way out, defiant youth successfully avoid conscription. But conscientious objectors, fighting to pave a legal path toward military exemption, see the difficulties of navigating the legal system as a means of silencing a public criticism of a practice that has helped perpetuate more than half a century of civil war.

Since September 2012, FARC guerrillas and the Colombian state have engaged in a dialogue to negotiate an end to the armed conflict, including the conditions necessary for insurgent groups to be dismantled and lay down their arms. While 67% of the Colombian population initially showed support for peace dialogues, 52% are doubtful they would lead to lasting peace. The size of the Colombian army has increased steadily over the past 15 years, expanding by 200% from 1995 to 2010, and post-conflict disarmament includes only insurgent groups. The prospect of disarming or dismantling national military structures has not been on the negotiating table.

Addressing an audience of local youth on June 27, the Bogota mayor’s office opened a public forum to confront such issues: if they have invited us to walk towards peace, then why are they recruiting us for war? The city government criticized irregular military recruitment practices, supported the right of youth to conscientiously object to military service, and promised to take an active stance against illegal recruitment practices that continue to occur throughout the city.

For years, the practice of targeting youth who have avoided military service has served as a means to fulfill low military enrollment quotas. These arbitrary street round-ups, known as batidas, publically target youth without proper military identification, coerce them to get into military trucks, and subject them to lengthy arbitrary detentions. Declared illegal in November of 2011 by Colombia’s constitutional court, the practice continues today.

Seventy batidas were documented by the Association of Colombian Conscientious Objectors from October 2012 to May 2013, including cases of military units from outlying cities illegally recruiting to fill gaps in distant brigades. But the majority of these cases are not reported. Concentrated in neighborhoods on the fringe of the city, they have become commonplace, and youth are taught to run and hide when military recruitment trucks make their rounds, rather than file official complaints. The trucks target poor communities, and a batida occurring in a wealthy neighborhood has yet to be reported. Instead, round-ups occur in early mornings, targeting public transportation hubs, cultural events, or concerts, concentrating in places where youth can be found and taken away quietly.

Such was the case of Juan Carlos. Taken from the bus terminal in the afternoon on May 19, he arrived at a military base in Villavicencio, almost three hours from his home. When he was released, forty-five days later, he left with the same clothes on his back that he had arrived in and one small, plastic bag. In it was a wire-bound notebook where he had jotted down thoughts and pencil drawings, including a self-portrait of himself after he had been forced to shave his head.

Declaring himself a conscientious objector upon entering the base, he refused to either participate in formation practices or carry a weapon, despite constant pressure to do so. Instead, he was obligatedto serve as a guard, often forced to keep watch through the night, denied and deprived of sleep. Daily he would remind battalion commanders of his commitment to non-violence, and every day he was pressured to pick up a weapon. As he communicated his commitment to nonviolence to friends and family, letters and phone calls began to flood the base, requesting his release as a conscientious objector.

But on July 4, as Juan Carlos walked out of the base, relieved of his military service, there was a stillness that followed him. Although he had been exempt from compulsory military service on the grounds of nonviolence and conscientious objection, his case would not be legally recognized. There would be no official recognition that his release was based on a moral objection to military service, nor his right to freedom of conscience. Like so many others, his voice as a conscientious objector would be officially silenced.