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If you knew nothing about Colombia, you might well think, “That’s great! There’s peace now”. But life in Colombia is never quite as straightforward as it might seem.
Many of you will have seen the historic agreement on a bilateral ceasefire which was reached in Havana last week between the Colombian government and the principal guerrilla group, the FARC, with the historic handshake between President Santos and Timochenko the guerrilla leader.
If you knew nothing about Colombia, you might well think, “That’s great! There’s peace in Colombia now”. But life in Colombia is never quite as straightforward as it might seem. More negotiations are needed before a final peace agreement is signed; and even when it is, there are many obstacles along the road to peace:
1. There are two guerrilla groups operating in the country. FARC is the larger of the two, but the Colombian government only started talking to ELN, the smaller group, in March of this year. We know that some guerrillas, not wishing to give up fighting, have transferred from FARC to ELN in advance of the agreement. Even when the demobilisation process begins, we will never be sure exactly how many guerrillas have given up carrying arms. For we know from past experience in Colombia that the armed group which is supposed to be demobilising will commandeer civilians and force them to pretend to have been fighters so that they can receive the demobilisation money (most of which goes to the armed group) and be added falsely to the statistics of the demobilised.
2. There are a whole host of criminal gangs operating in Colombia, sometimes in alliance with FARC and/or ELN, sometimes in conflict with them. These gangs are often the remnants of the paramilitary group AUC which demobilised in 2006 and are involved in drug trafficking, illegal exploitation of natural resources, extortion and kidnapping. Many of these gangs will gladly receive former FARC guerrillas to swell their ranks.
3. Beneath the rhetoric there are some stark facts. Although the FARC and the army are no longer fighting each other, armed confrontations are taking place regularly between ELN and criminal gangs. The FARC promised to stop recruiting new fighters to its ranks – often this is done forcibly – but has not kept its promise; and it is still engaged in extortion and forcing people to go on strike to create civil disturbance.
4. There is the military. Between 1999 and 2013 the USA gave $9.3 billion in military aid to Colombia. This is very good business for the Colombian military! Considering that Colombia has no external enemies , it maintains an army that is grossly oversized: 450,000 active frontline personnel – three times greater than the UK’s military, and the UK has a population 50% greater! Most military personnel have, in common with the vast majority of Colombians, an intense desire for peace in their country; but there is a substantial element in the army which is trying secretly to sabotage the peace process, because they see a substantially diminished role for the army if peace comes to Colombia.
5. Even if, with goodwill on every side, there is a substantial move towards peace, there are a host of tantalisingly difficult issues to resolve. Where will the demobilised fighters live? Will they all be put together in one community, a strategy which has proved disastrous in the past? Will ordinary people tolerate them coming to live in their communities, especially if they suspect that they have killed their friends or family members? What will the demobilised fighters do for a living? Many of them know only how to intimidate and fire a gun. How will the crimes of the past be handled? Who will receive an amnesty and who will be tried in court? How will families find out the truth about the disappearance of their loved ones?
6. Finally, there are the Christians. 40% of the population are practising Catholics or Protestants, and most of the rest are nominally Catholic. We are the ones who should be setting the agenda, through prayer and selfless service. But there are a number of factors which seriously limit the effectiveness of the church in Colombia. Probably the biggest is the lack of unity which is evident in many parts of the country. I meet many Colombian Christians who long for greater unity in the body of Christ in their country; but it must be the church leaders, the pastors, the priests, the bishops who take the lead in this. Thank God that some are; but there is a long way to go. Then there is the attitude of some mega-churches in the big cities to simply ignore the sufferings of those affected by conflict, especially if they embrace the so-called prosperity gospel. Then there is the increasingly strong trend of militant secularism, which can be seen in parts of the Colombian administration and which seeks to marginalise Christians in the political process.
Then there is that natural human tendency towards cynicism and despair, which affects us all, Christian or otherwise. How easy it is to look at the ceasefire agreement and say, ‘We’ve seen it all before. Nothing will come of it.’ Maybe. But surely we, as Christians are called to be bearers of hope, not of cynicism and despair.
Jesus, for the joy set before him, endured the cross and despised the shame (Hebrews 12:2). Many Christians in Colombia are experiencing that joy even as they too endure the most horrible sufferings as a result of the conflict. Will their brothers and sisters in Christ who are not directly affected by the conflict allow God to set before them the joy of peace in Colombia, and will they persevere and endure, bearing a cross if need be, despising the shame, and so experience the glory of God?
Michael Gowen worked for the European Comission in Brussels for 25 years. He has visited Colombia several times in the last years, offering Christian perspectives to the conflict.