Publication date: 
Jul 2017

Goodbye to arms

Avila Kilmurray
Conciliation Resources' trustee, Avila Kilmurray, attended Colombia's official reconciliation ceremony this month, where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) handed over some of their last weapons, signifying an end to over 50 years of armed conflict. Avila was representing The Social Change Initiative. Here, she shares her thoughts about the event and the challenges ahead.

Goodbye to arms

“The implementation of the peace agreement is now our political platform”, declared FARC-EP leader Timochenko (Rodrigo Londoño), speaking from a stage in the Mariana Paez TVZN transitional zone in the province of Meta, Colombia.  His speech followed the assurance, delivered by the UN Head of Mission, Jean Arnault, that 7,132 personal weapons had been delivered by FARC members the day before the reconciliation ceremony.  Guns were handed over to the UN Mission, with fighters receiving certificates in return to allow them to transition legally to civilian life.  The agreement is that once transitioned, FARC will receive the ‘necessary support’ for reincorporation – a concept that trips off the tongue easier than the reality of implementation.  Images of the weapons hand-overhand flashed on screens as a back drop to Jean Arnault’s fulsome praise of the achievement and his suggestion that the UN role in support of the Colombian peace process might well be a model for other conflicted areas of the world.  The UN Monitoring Mission is a political, unarmed tripartite mission, composed of UN personnel, Colombian soldiers and police, and the FARC working together, under the coordination of the UN.  Members of the Mission wandered through the crowds at the reconciliation event.
Badged as reconciliation, the scene was set in the transitional zone of Mesetas in central Colombia.  The 15 kilometre stretch of unpaved country road that snaked up to the hilltop camp was treacherous to anything but the most tenacious 4X4 vehicles.  Colombian President Santos, and visiting dignitaries, were flown in by helicopter to attend the gathering that was dubbed as ‘historic’.  Rows of white plastic chairs were set out for the largely FARC audience, many of who wore white tee-shirts, emblazoned with the message – ‘Paz con justicia social’.  When President Santos rose to speak, hand-made banners were waved demanding the release of the three thousand or so remaining FARC prisoners.  Undeterred Santos declared that “Our peace is real and irreversible”, adding that the disarmament was the best news in Colombia in 50 years.  Amongst the witnesses were EU Special Envoy to the Colombian Peace Process, Eamon Gilmore, as well as diplomatic representatives from Cuba, Norway and Ireland.

A flight of butterflies

As Timochenko handed the microphone over to President Santos, gifts were exchanged and hundreds of small, lemon hued mimosa butterflies were released.  They fluttered their way skywards, tiny specks against the dark green of the surrounding mountains.  Some even wavered against the trio of flags flapping from bamboo poles – the tricolour Colombian national flag; a white flag of peace and the red hammer and sickle flag of the PCC – the clandestine Colombian Communist Party of FARC.  A coterie of FARC senior leaders sat in serried rows to hear Timochenko declare that "This day is not the end of FARC, but the end of the armed uprising of 53 years."  While offering the commitment to never again use arms in politics, he demanded that “All political persecution must end from today”.  The statement was greeted by applause.

If the occasion was marked by symbolism and good will, the conditions in the surrounding transitional zone where FARC combatants were gathered was less than impressive.  Swathes of heavy mud sucked at the ubiquitous water boots worn by both residents and visitors alike.  Makeshift encampments were served by the most  elementary sanitary and cooking facilities, and FARC members complained that their health and social care needs were being ignored.  A number of young children and infants joined the men and women living in these conditions.  For his part, Timochenko pointed to the poor state of the zone infrastructure as an indication of the failure of the Colombian state to move quickly enough to implement the provisions of the peace accord.  He contrasted this to the arms hand-over as proof of how FARC fulfilled its obligations.  The songs and music that followed the speeches seemed somewhat at odds to the pointed political messages, although, in the main, they celebrated peace and recorded past struggles.

The challenges of reincorporation

The Transitional Zone in Mesetas is one of 22 such cantonments in areas across Colombia, with an additional 6 camp sites.  The Peace Agreement included detailed provisions as to how the process for the reincorporation of FARC guerrilla fighters and political ex-prisoners would work.  The implementation, it was suggested, is more haphazard in practice.  Mauricio Jaramillo (‘El Medico’) emphasised the urgent need for the provision of adequate health, educational and training facilities.  A five-decade veteran of FARC and the PCC, ‘El Medico’ stressed the need for proactive policies and provision to be put in place for not only the 580 FARC activists in Mesetas, but for those in other areas as well.  He also spoke about the centrality of the release of political prisoners to augment confidence in the peace process.  Legal and administrative obstacles were cited as undermining the spirit of the terms of the 245 page agreement.  A woman ex-prisoner added her voice to highlight the conditions of female FARC members still being held in prison with little information as to their future.

One important aspect of the reincorporation process is the development of an economic infrastructure that can provide employment and income generating activities.  The concept of ECOMUN cooperative development is seen as central, as are rural development initiatives in this heavily rural organisation.  The shell of what is to become a pond for a fish farm in the Mesetas transitional zone was less than re-assuring notwithstanding the optimism of a FARC guide to the project.  A recent report* by the International Crisis Group argued that the pre-existing National Reincorporation Council, and soon to be established ECOMUN, have key roles to play in any successful integration process.  A more cutting edge concern is the physical security of FARC members as they address the tasks of reincorporation.  However these concerns are handled, it is clear that there is a need for quick results to ensure continued confidence and cohesion, notwithstanding the apparent stoicism in the Mesetas zone.

Changing the narrative

Speaking at a seminar on the challenges of reincorporation, organised by the International Crisis Group and the Embassy of Ireland, Mexico, two days after the Mesetas ceremony (29th June 2017), Pastor Alape, representing FARC-EP, located the challenges in a broader political framing.  Introducing himself by his birth name rather than his guerrilla pseudo-nom as an indication of the new climate of openness, he argued that “The FARC perspective is to help build, help by accompanying all the people who dream of building an inclusive society”.  “Justice”, he added, is to create “Better conditions of life for society” in place of elite family control rooted in the Colombian colonial history.  The non-violent political strategy of FARC is still being worked out, but ‘El Medico’ was clear that any new reincorporation infrastructure for FARC members had to benefit local communities as well.

The declared political perspective of building an equal and inclusive society is still overshadowed by the 260,000 deaths, and over 7 million displaced, in the 50 plus year conflict.  The 2016 autumn referendum saw the peace settlement rejected by 50.2%; a narrow margin of 50,000 votes in a low turn-out of 38%.  It was noticeable that those areas that had borne the brunt of the conflict voted in support of the peace agreement.  It is clear, however, that much work still needs to be done to build general confidence in an agreement that is marked by complexity, in a context where armed groups, other than FARC, continue to operate.  The multi-partner fund being put in place by the UN, together with the EU Trust Fund for Colombia, are designed to help in this task through practical support and delivery on the ground.  The importance of not only changing the narrative of terrorism, but effectively communicating it remains.  The trick is to relate a new narrative to the different layers of a society whose views of reality have been shaped by sharply contrasting lived experience depending on their economic status and location.  With a pending Presidential Election in 2018 this is not a task that can be postponed.  But in the spirit of celebrating milestones in any peace process, the reconciliation event in Mesetas on 27th June, is notable.  As Timochenko tweeted the night before "The laying down of arms is an act of will, courage and hope"; the response by President Santos that “You will have all the security guarantees that are necessary”, needs to be realised in practice.

*In the Shadow of “No”: Peace after Colombia’s Plebiscite – Latin America Report No 60, January 2017 – International Crisis Group.    


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