Colombia gives peace a chance in Oslo talks with Farc

After 50 years of deadly civil war, the government's peace talks with leftist Farc rebels could finally demobilise 9,000 fighters

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2012, 4:55am

Under the jagged Andean peaks of south-western Colombia, villagers gathered on a recent cloudy morning at the school, where they mixed cement to rebuild a classroom destroyed in March by a mortar shell.

The mortar had been fired by guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) at an army outpost on the next hill. But, like many of the homemade explosives used by rebels, it missed its mark.

This time, the villagers were lucky: there were no casualties. But after living under the shadow of leftist guerrillas for nearly 50 years, they know death can come from either side, at any time.

"If you're home, you hide under the bed," says Jose Aurelio Medina, a community leader in Calandaima. "If you're in the fields, you take cover anywhere. You wait for the fighting to stop."

There is a chance now that the fighting could stop permanently, all across Colombia. Peace talks between the Farc and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos begin tomorrow in Oslo, and will continue in Havana, in what analysts say is the most serious effort yet to end one of the world's longest running civil wars.

The talks have suffered a series of postponements. Due to start today, the talks were put off for a day because the rebels' top negotiator Ivan Marquez experienced travel hold-ups due to bad weather. Before that, they had been postponed for several days, because of the rebels' last-minute inclusion of a young Dutch combatant who joined the insurgents nearly a decade ago. The participation of Tanja Nijmeijer, 34, as a spokesperson in Oslo could help boost the Farc's profile in Europe.

Though the Farc is militarily weakened, and government forces have the upper hand, both sides have concluded a battlefield victory is impossible.

Unlike previous ]talks, in which the two sides tried to address all that is wrong in Colombia, these talks are focused on ending the conflict. If successful, the talks will demobilise the Farc's 9,000 fighters, ushering in a peace-building process.

Gunfire aside, the conflict affects the day-to-day lives of the locals. In Farc strongholds, such as Cauca, peasants either submit to the local commander's often arbitrary rule, offering up pigs, a day's labour, or even their sons and daughters, or they leave.

Victor Salas, a municipal official in the town of Corinto tasked with receiving complaints about rights abuses, says he rarely gets a complaint about rebel abuses.

"If you want to stay, you keep your head down," he says.

The peace talks' agenda mentions the victims of the conflict and the need for truth, but pointedly leaves unaddressed the issue of how justice will be delivered.

A constitutional amendment recently created a system of transitional justice, dubbed a "conditional amnesty, even for serious violation of human rights" by Colombia's attorney general.

But Sigifredo Lopez, a politician who was held hostage for seven years until 2009, said victims had a right to be heard.

"None of the government negotiators at the table has suffered from the war, and they are going to end up handing out pardons in our name," he said.

The Guerillas

  • The Farc make up just one - albeit the most powerful - of many violent armed groups in Colombia. If a deal is reached to demobilise the Farc fighters, the country will still have to deal with other rebel groups, which thrive on weak democratic institutions.
  • The Cuban-inspired National Liberation Army (ELN) is Colombia's second largest leftist insurgency. Believed to have up to 1,500 fighters, its leaders have made public overtures about beginning a parallel peace process to the Farc negotiations. Failure to deal with the ELN would leave an opening for Farc fighters who resist laying down their guns.
  • The Anti-Restitution Army is a paramilitary-style group opposing the government's programme to return stolen land to displaced peasants. At least 45 members of displaced communities seeking land have been murdered since 2002.
  • Rastrojos, Urabenos, Paisas: These groups are successors of demobilised paramilitary groups of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, which struck a deal to disarm with the Uribe government. They still commit widespread civilian abuses.

The Guardian