‘Peace is not the silence of the fusils’

The Colombian Congress passed the final Peace Agreement in November 2016 that put an end to a 55-year long conflict, after being rejected in a national referendum to the astonishment of the international community.

Last week I landed in Bogotá, a high-altitude city sheltered by mountains, to carry out research for my Masters dissertation on a gender analysis of the peace process. While a cease-fire between the main armed groups has been signed, violence is far from gone.

A bleak year for social activists

2019 has been a bleak year for social activists, particularly Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders and human rights defenders.

More than 60 have been assassinated in the face of inaction from a conservative government that resists implementing the agreed pacts. This stage is critical to ensure the endurance of the hard-won peace. The agreement measures must be implemented without delay. Unfortunately, the decrease of global attention and funding from international institutions that has shifted to neighbouring Venezuela could have dreadful consequences for a country with a fragile political situation.

Memories of war

The history and memory of the war can be sensed everywhere in the capital, despite being one of the regions less affected by conflict. It can be seen in public plaques, library posters, street art, photography exhibitions; heard, invariably on the radio newscast, guided tours, vindictive songs, and even touched in the peace quilts or broken glass protests.

Two days after my arrival, I decided to visit the Peace, Memory and Reconciliation Centre. The museum’s location is bizarre. It’s situated next to one of the principal arteries of the metropolis that is home to 8 million people, almost 17% of the population. At first, I thought it was closed or under construction given the absence of visitors outside. One of the main externals walls that acts as what I thought was a fence depicted images of guerrilleros, or soldiers carrying dead bodies or hurt individuals. Later, a Colombian friend told me that it is one of the main cemeteries of the city and that the adjacent construction of the centre, almost seven years ago, is still controversial.

Once indoors, there are a wide range of symbolic pieces that commemorate the memory of the victims and the desire for reconciliation. Yet, Laura Silva, Victim Psychology Researcher, criticises the overfocus on the role of the victims as passive actors, producing almost a revictimization process. While I agree that there is a monolithic and emotional approach towards remembrance, I also found the retention of individual stories during the conflict through the presentation of an object that had special symbolism for them to be extremely valuable.

Threading the peace

On my way out of the main exhibition area, I came across a room full of people sewing. On one of the tables, a group of students were struggling to commit to the task, while filming for a university project. I found out soon after that it was the Union of Female Sewers and that they had met four days a week for the past six years. Their purpose is to retrieve emotional memories from the conflict by telling their stories orally and in the cloths. Everyone is welcomed to participate. I got the chance to meet one of the organizers of the group, Virgelina Chará, an Afro-Colombian leader and Human Rights Defender of the Association of Women and Work, who claims that what they do here is “public policy, politics of denouncement, construction of memory and also a psychosocial proposition’’. She invited me to participate in the quilt denominated ‘The coming and going of the victims’. At the end of the session, I asked her the meaning and she replied: ‘that’s for next time you come’.

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