Churches accompany ex-combatant communities through delicate peace process

Mayerlis serves woman leader Aida a meal of sarapa – rice and chicken wrapped in a Cachibou leaf. Photo: LWF/Albin Hillert
Mayerlis serves woman leader Aida a meal of sarapa – rice and chicken wrapped in a Cachibou leaf. Photo: LWF/Albin Hillert

FARC ex-combatants live fragile peace in Colombia

(LWI) In the far northwest – long one of the country’s most precarious regions – the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Colombia IELCO) supports communities through a difficult and slow-moving peace process, to sustain peaceful efforts, and alleviate the risk of relapse into violent conflict.

Accompanying more than 300 families in the Antioquia area, ‘De la Guerra a la Paz’ is a project of IELCO, which is part of the global ecumenical initiative ‘Waking the Giant’, of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Officially launched in Colombia in November 2018, ‘Waking the Giant’ brings together an emerging platform of churches from a dozen Christian traditions in Colombia, in joint efforts to help achieve the United Nations’ Agenda 2030, not least through the Sustainable Development Goal on peace, justice and strong institutions.

Peace is a big concept. Peace is education, peace is health, peace is life in dignity
Edwin Mosquera, project coordinator of De la Guerra a la Paz

All photos: LWF/Albin Hillert

“When we arrived the community here didn’t know what to expect. ‘Will there be conflict, or killings or threats?’,” says former guerrilla commander Joverman Sánchez Arroyave, known by the name Rubén Cano in the FARC guerrilla (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). “But there has been none of that. We have come here to work, and to work together with the community. That’s what we are doing.”

Today, Rubén is one of a group of FARC ex-combatant families who have settled down for a peaceful life in the valley of San José de León, municipality of Mutatá in Antioquia in northwest Colombia. Together, they have purchased and now cultivate 36 hectares of land.

But transitioning from guerrilla warfare to a life in peace has not been an easy process. Two years after signing the peace treaty with the Colombian government in 2016, ex-combatants continue to face trauma, stigmatization, and insecurity.

Church project provides tools for peaceful development

The Urabá region forms a strategically important corridor for trade into Central America, and the resulting drug trafficking and arms trade still keep armed groups active in the area. With a government slow in fulfilling the promises of the peace treaty, and now a president who has argued that the treaty is too lenient on former guerrillas, the situation is all but simple.

“In the period the country is going through at the moment, there are a number of challenges… the fulfilments of the promises by the government have been very few and the development slow. So both the ex-combatants and the communities where they are reintegrating need support,” explains Edwin Mosquera, project coordinator of De la Guerra a la Paz (‘From War to Peace’).

“As a church in this instance, we offer not so much religious as we do practical accompaniment,” notes Rev. John Hernández, a Lutheran pastor who accompanies the project. “We offer support on trauma management, self-protection and legal issues.”

A growing community gives hope, while testifying to deep challenges

“To forgive is to remember without pain,” says a man in his mid-fifties, as sociologist Ana Eloísa Gómez leads a workshop with community members on the topic of forgiveness and reconciliation.

“We know that there are many things that hurt, that keep us apart. But maybe we can also think of things that unite us, that help keep us together as a nation?” Gómez asks.

A young girl plays by a wooden fence during the workshop. It was a group of 27 ex-combatant families who first purchased the lot of land in San José de León, moving in from nearby Córdoba to settle alongside some 50 families of peasant farmers already living in the area.

Two years later, 50 ex-combatant families now live in the emerging community, which hosts a small restaurant, various committees for community organization and development, and which earns a living through agriculture, fish farming and poultry.

“Before, we saw that most people had their children, but then had to hand them away directly to the grandparents or the aunts, that the children never had the surnames from their own parents – or they would have been persecuted, killed or kidnapped. Now, I think it is very good, because some are reuniting with their children, and today we don’t have this problem,” says one of the community’s women leaders, Aida.

But there’s also a difficult side to the story.   

“The first ones who came here were those who were with comrade Rubén. Others decided to stay in Córdoba,” Aida adds. “But then came the paramilitaries and drove them away from the lands they were living on. And as they didn’t have any place to live, they came here. You see, here we can give refuge to comrades who don’t have anywhere to go.”

“Seeing as, even though we are in a peace process, the government continues to be absent, what our project seeks to do is strengthen the steps for peace,” Mosquera says. “Peace is a big concept. Peace is education, peace is health, peace is life in dignity. In practical ways, this project has allowed us one of those small opportunities, to start to dream of building peace in Colombia.”

“I think this accompaniment is very interesting… especially how you help us to better understand what was agreed by both parties, the government and FARC, in the peace treaty,” Rubén says in conclusion. “I dream that what was agreed in Havana, witnessed by the international community, is fulfilled. That is the whole essence, to achieve the political transformation that is needed in our country, including peace.”

Written for LWI by Albin Hillert, edited by LWF Communications.