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November 29, 2022

Creating a Culture Where Peace Can Grow in Colombia

HU’s Melanie Greenberg writes about how Colombia’s people are building a culture of peace after 50 years of conflict.

This is the third in a series of blogs on peacebuilding in Colombia. View the full series here.

What struck me most powerfully during Humanity United’s recent visit to Colombia was how intentionally every activist, artist, scholar, Truth Commissioner and peacebuilder we met contributed toward building a culture of peace. Whether it was muralists capturing the pain of the past 50 years juxtaposed with the beauty of hope in their art, youth peacebuilders doing their best to ensure that another generation would never suffer the trauma they themselves had experienced, or Truth Commissioners spreading the idea that “if there is justice, there is a future,” everyone felt empowered to build a culture in which “convivencia” is possible.

This weaving of a culture of peace acknowledges the deep interconnection necessary to bridge divides after so many years of polarization and the need to bring visibility to experiences that were consciously buried for decades.

Our partners in Colombia are engaging with a kaleidoscope of methodologies for building a culture of peace. Many of these focus on the lenses necessary for building peace: looking backwards, focusing on issues of memory and lived experience of the conflict, acting in the present moment to respond to newly arising challenges, and projecting forward to build new landscapes and ecosystems that can underpin resilient and sustainable peace.

Honoring the Memory of the Past

While the official launch event of Colombia’s Truth Commission was a life-affirmingly powerful moment for justice and memory, there was also a much quieter setting for reflection on the nature of loss. This is reflected in the vibrant murals that paint the walls of Comuna 13 in Medellín, and at the nearby Cemeterio Parrioquial La America, where the remains of formerly “disappeared” men and women have been laid to rest. On the wall outside the cemetery, a larger-than-life portrait of Fabiola Lalinde gazes out onto the street, a reminder that this mother searched unceasingly for her son for more than 30 years, finally learning about his fate before her own death. (More of the murals can be viewed on the Instagram page of Jomag, the artist who painted many of them and who served as our guide, along with audiovisual artist Damián through Comuna 13.)

Inside the cemetery, spread out over several peaceful hills, walls covered with murals represent the pain of victims, the hope for the future and mysteries of life and death. Ossuaries containing bones of the victims are stacked neatly into towers next to walls draped with murals ranging from misty spirits of the dead, to the depiction of a father digging in tranquil farmland for the remains of his daughter, to the image of a hand holding a microphone with a dove emerging from the music. Outside the circle of walls, the cemetery offers a sweeping view of the city below, a reminder that life goes on.

And in the distance, a mass grave that is still being exhumed blots the landscape.

One of the most powerful paintings in the cemetery shows a mother lying in bed weeping, covered in a colorful quilt and holding a photo of her son, with her husband standing beside her. Under the bed is a letter written from her son, telling her that he is always walking by her side, always in her memory, and that he will be waiting for her at the end of the path, ready to embrace her so strongly that he will never let her go again.

Addressing the nature of memory and developing communal responses to healing trauma lie at the heart of much of Humanity United’s work in supporting the agency and power of local peacebuilding. Not only is art a potent tool for capturing memory and experience in a way that transcends words, but the creation of art can itself work to heal trauma and build community. In addition, art often gives voice to those most marginalized during conflict, especially women, minorities and indigenous groups operating far from the center of power.

The murals speak more powerfully than words can often express about the impunity of the perpetrators of violence and the pain families suffered when their loved ones were disappeared. This honoring of memory in the kind of artistic and emotional terms that also suffuse the testimonies of the Truth Commission provides the foundation for a new culture of peace. This vibrant art manages to be at once deeply sad and profoundly hopeful, reflecting the duality of peacebuilding itself.

Responding to the Present

Creating a culture of peace means being able to respond forcefully and creatively, in real time, at moments of social unrest. While we were in Medellín, we met with the team leading “Tenemos que Hablar, Colombia” (We need to talk, Colombia). As part of this project, Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP), one of HU’s anchor partners in Colombia, used a recent moment of high tension in Colombia to build spaces for dialogue, patterning positive behavior that avoided downward spiraling of conflict, and creating new patterns for resolving conflict and grievance peacefully.

During the spring of 2021, student uprisings roiled Colombia, with grievances related to COVID lockdowns and the ensuing economic pain. In response, building on a methodology that Chile had pioneered the previous year, six universities joined forces with HU partner FIP, and Grupo Sura, to gather more than 5,000 Colombians from all corners of the country, seeking to imagine and build the Colombia of the future.

The “Tenemos que Hablar, Colombia” dialogues began in August 2021 and lasted almost five months. A total of 1,453 conversations were held with 5,159 people from all over the country. Six citizen mandates emerged from these conversations: (1) Making a new pact for education; (2) Changing politics and eliminating corruption; (3) Transforming society through culture; (4) Caring for biodiversity and cultural diversity; (5) Building public trust; and (6) Protecting peace and the Constitution. These citizen mandates represent a powerful collective voice and imagination very different from the polarized narratives of war, conflict and division.

While in Medellín, we met with several of the facilitators of the dialogue, who talked about what it was like for them as young people who had lived through the conflict to serve as neutral conversation leaders. For many, it was the first time they had engaged with people so far outside their own experience or geographic area, and they reflected on the tension between neutrality and deep emotional engagement in the issues under discussion.

“Tenemos que Hablar, Colombia” represents an important facet of Humanity United’s work on peacebuilding: how to engage with social movements and how to weave the energy and collective voice emerging from social movements into a broader peacebuilding agenda. This initiative is extraordinary in that it was able to channel the anger and energy of a generation of students who felt left behind and marginalized during COVID lockdowns, and to turn that action into a true and representative mandate for change. The dialogues around these themes were in themselves mini peacebuilding interventions, as they brought together a wide range of citizens across multiple divides to discuss the deepest issues facing Colombian society.

Building for the Future

In creating a new culture of peace, our partners in Colombia recognize the importance of a systems-based approach. One of the most exceptional elements of the Colombian Peace Accords is its emphasis on “territorial peace” rather than a top-down mandate from Bogotá. Implicit in this concept of “territorial peace” is the idea that peace does not arise magically from the peace accords between the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the government. Rather, peace needs to be built at every level of society, with multiple webs leading transversally across a range of geographic and social divides as well as vertically into the centers of political and economic power.
One of the most extraordinary experiences we shared in Colombia was a day called ECO (Encuentro para Conocerse) where Humanity United, in partnership with FIP, brought together 15 of our core partners from across Colombia for a day of sharing, planning, and experimentation. The group ranged from academic organizations (like the Kroc Institute’s Barometro team) to youth peacebuilding institutions working at a very local level (like Sehpaz), to dialogue platforms working in local communities on complex issues of social change (like Plataforma Diálogos Improbables and Sembrando Paz), and many more. Participants included peacebuilders from indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, often marginalized during the 50-year conflict and now working actively in the “territorial implementation” of the Peace Accords. This was the first time many of the groups had engaged with each other on a system-wide basis, and the day resonated with laughter, deep conversation and planning for the future.

Our hope is that ECO becomes a spiderweb, to use John Paul Lederach’s terminology, which allows the participants to strengthen their bonds with one another as key scaffolding for a new culture of peace in Colombia.
This kind of gathering needs careful curation and nurturing, to create a space that feels safe, generative and creative. Prior to the event, every organization filled out a survey, describing their mission, why they do the work they do, and then a series of questions about how they might connect to others in the group:

  1. What skills do you offer as an organization in order to work with others?
  2. What interests or necessities does your organization have that can be used as opportunities for connection?
  3. What challenges is your organization currently experiencing?

The answers to these questions were compiled into booklets in Spanish and English so that even before the presentations began participants could start to gain a sense of their greater whole. Over the course of the day, question prompts in the booklet asked participants to reflect on what connects them to the others in the room, what surprises them, what questions they are holding and what opportunities for collaboration they might identify.

Unlike many workshops at which international donors are present, we conducted the day completely in Spanish, with translation for American visitors, rather than forcing the participants to engage in English. This is an important element of language justice, and part of Humanity United’s values of accompaniment and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Watching such brilliant and compassionate peacebuilders come together with dedication, creativity, hope and determination for the future was a profoundly inspiring experience. They were knitting a culture of peace in front of our eyes, through their own deep experience, their openness to connecting on multiple levels, and their commitment to building sustainable peace.

After 10 days engaging deeply with our partners and watching how intentionally they are wrestling with history and creating new patterns of cohesion after so many years of war, I felt wistful coming home to the United States, where the opposite dynamics seem to be talking hold. We have a great deal to learn from Colombia about how to face history with clear eyes; how to infuse a spirit of peacebuilding into education, politics, environmental protection and the arts; and how to harness the deep courage necessary to reach across divides and imagine a future of “convivencia.”

Melanie Greenberg is the Managing Director of HU’s Peacebuilding body of work.

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