Love letters to guerrilla fighters6,900 letters in support of reconciliation, including one from Uruguay’s former president José Mujica
After more than half a century of civil war, Colombia’s young people are sending letters of hope to guerrilla fighters to help them re-integrate into society. Read More
Why do we only send love letters to people we know? Isn’t it much more important to show affection for those who feel rejected? This idea haunted Colombian youth activists Leonardo Párraga from the BogotArt Foundation and Cristian Palacios from the Young Youth Foundation, and served as their inspiration in founding Cartas por la Reconciliación (Letters for the Reconciliation), a campaign that encourages young people to send letters to guerrilla fighters.
A historic event had recently taken place in their country, and they wanted to do their part: After years of negotiations, the Colombian government had reached a peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), thus ending Latin America’s longest running armed conflict.
Internationally, the signing of the peace accord was considered such an important step that President José Manuel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. But there is still a long way to go before true reconciliation and peace have been achieved. Guerrilla fighters, people who have lived in illegal camps for years, only been exposed to the rhetoric of war, and have kept their weapons by their sides 24/7, will now somehow have to integrate into civilian life. And Colombian society, accustomed to an abiding fear and, in some cases, a deep hatred for the guerrilla fighters, will have to accept them back and support them in setting up new lives.
Leonardo and Cristian were convinced that Colombia’s youth had to come together and help the reintegration process along. And they have: So far, thousands of young people have written letters – love letters to ex-guerrilla combatants, welcoming them back in society. Their aim is to write 6,900 messages, one for each former guerrillero, and hand them over personally.
How Valentine’s Day became the campaign’s inspiration
The idea to found Cartas de Reconciliación was born at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Bogotá in February 2017, when Leonardo and Cristian had an opportunity to briefly talk with 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kailash Satyarthi. The laureate mentioned that we write tons of love letters to those we love on Valentine's Day, while forgetting the people most in need. His plan this year, he added, was to share love with those who needed encouragement most. Leonardo and Cristian adapted the idea to the Colombian context, and came up with the plan to send letters of hope and support to the ex-combatants of the FARC now struggling to find their place and establish a new way of life. “The letters will show that Colombian society is ready to change the discourse from a narrative of war to a collective story of peace,” they say.
This is no easy job, as Colombian society is deeply divided and discourse strongly polarized. More than half a century of civil war – literally 52 long years of violence and hatred – have left millions of civilians dead or internally displaced. In the 1960s, the founders of the FARC intended to fight the violence and social injustices committed by the state. But over the years, the conflict turned into a brutal war involving the military, paramilitary groups, and drug cartels, with all parties committing violent attacks. The FARC even resorted to kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking, the reasons many Colombians truly revile them today.
Although people longed for an end to the suffering, peace negotiations were tough and almost failed. The first agreement reached by Santos’ government took four years to be drafted and signed, before it was rejected by a slim majority by the Colombian people in a referendum. Many felt the punishment it entailed for the criminal FARC guerrillas were not harsh enough. In December 2016, the government and the FARC settled on a second, reworked agreement that passed successfully. The FARC guerillas agreed to lay down their arms and continue their struggle at a political level, for which they were guaranteed multiple parliamentary mandates. They are currently being transferred to UN-observed protection zones, where they are to relinquish their weapons and prepare to enter civilian life.
“People are afraid of this change that is coming,” Cristian explains. “They wonder what is going to happen when the guerrilleros return to society, and whether they are actually able to lay down their weapons and join democracy." And ordinary people are not the only ones who are worried. For FARC ex-combatants, returning to civilian society feels threatening as well. They remember a similar attempt in 1984, when the FARC agreed to stop fighting and continue their struggle at a political level. They founded the Unión Patriótica (UP) party, which was then slowly eliminated, most probably by government agents, in what could be considered political genocide, with thousands of member killed, disappeared or tortured.
“In a polarized country with a divided society, it is important to look for symbols that can unite us and help us find common ground,” Leo explains, “common ground where we can all collaborate and our actions have a positive meaning.”
The letters are intended as a show of support for ex-FARC combatants and give them hope. “I affirm that you are loved, that your life is long and full of beautiful moments,” the letter from a girl named Antonia reads. “You were born to be happy and free (...) I love you, I really love you!"
“You were born to be happy and free (...) I love you, I really love you!"
So far, the campaign has collected more than 2,000 messages, and the first 765 have been delivered. The initiative is active in all of Colombia’s biggest cities including Cali, Manizales, Medellín, Barranquilla and Bogotá.
Entering the guerrilla ex-fighters’ camp
The first 500 letters were delivered on Sunday, March 19th at one of the UN camps in the Caldono-Cauca area. A group of 40 students from Javeriana University of Cali, two members of the Cali mayor’s office and Leonardo of the BogotArt Foundation travelled to the camp to personally hand over the letters.
The members of the FARC lined up the way they once did to receive orders from their leaders, but this time it was to receive letters of support from people all over the country. It was a highly emotional, moving moment for all involved. "It is incredible how many feelings you can go through in just a few hours, from fear to happiness and everything in between,” political science student Manuela Jiménez Avila stated afterwards.
The combatants were deeply touched as well. "One of the things that makes me proud and happy is knowing that we are not alone; we are accompanied by you, the students...,” Bladimir, a guerrilla man who joined the FARC in 1998, said. “After we leave this camp for a civilian life, what I want is to find this same unity among the people we live with, and for us to work together for social change in our Colombia.”
“Nobody has ever written something so beautiful to me in my life.”
Sandra Parra from the office of the governor of Valle del Cauca recounted the unforgettable experience: “After we delivered the letters, an ex-combatant showed me around in the guerrilla camp. When I looked at one of the 'cambuches' (basically a shack the guerrilla members are living in), I saw a guerrilla member writing something. I was afraid to enter because there was an MGL grenade launcher resting on the bed by his side like a lethal sleeping beauty. I spoke to him anyway, and asked ‘hello, what are you doing?’ He replied, 'I am answering a letter that someone wrote to me; it is very beautiful and hopeful. Nobody has ever written something so beautiful to me in my life, so that is why I am responding.’ Tears began running down my face. I hugged him tightly and sat down next to the grenade launcher. Perhaps it was tired of war too, of being his faithful companion for years, and wanted to help him write the letter. He told me more about his life, that he had never expected more from life than war, and that joining the FARC was the only way to keep him and his six brothers from starving. 'I never thought there was anyone willing to forgive me for my mistakes, but now I know that there is a society waiting for us with open arms. So far, I have only known how to care for and hold weapons. But for peace, I can learn to do many things and work with dignity’.”
“So far, I have only known how to care for and hold weapons. But for peace, I can learn to do many things.”
Hearing voices that have never had a voice
To open the event, students and some FARC leaders sat down for a discussion round. The students had grown up during the war when the FARC was already a clandestine organisation. So the FARC leaders explained their organisation’s history, their ideals and their point of view regarding the process of peace: “After years and years in which we have seen how the social injustice caused by the state has affected the entire Colombian people, we believe that this opportunity to move towards a political party will allow us to transform the country into a more equitable society. It is worth overcoming all the obstacles for an objective of this magnitude,” one of them said.
Manuela was impressed: “Hearing the reality of those voices who have never had a voice or a vote, and realizing that those that I often considered monsters, and even came to hate, were also actually human beings with beautiful feelings that were distorted by the environment in which they had to live and by the conditions that created them. That was deeply painful. The reality of the country hurts, but it is comforting to realize that all human beings, including those who have killed so many and caused so much damage, have something to teach us, plus a smile and a hug to give away.”Many ex-combatants have replied to the letters. Gustavo González, commander of the encampment in Caldono-Cauca, for instance, wrote the following lines to Cali’s Archbishop Darío de Jesús Monsalve: “Colombians had been led to believe that peace would arrive with disarmament. This is not the case. While we have inequality, hunger, and a lack of education, health, and job opportunities, there will always be someone who is ready to take up arms, to revolt and protest to reclaim their rights, and that is completely valid (...) Nowadays, in the FARC we are betting on peace, on politics without weapons. That is why we call on all the defenders of peace – regardless of race, religion or ideology – to rise above those who dream of a country at war. We give you our word, contribution, and sacrifice because we know first hand that nothing is easy, that there are many challenges for those of us who defend life as the cornerstone of existence. We will experience many obstacles, but we will succeed together.”
Pepe Mujica joins the campaign
On March 30, another former guerrilla member joined the campaign: José (Pepe) Mujica, the former president of Uruguay. On a recent visit to Cali, he met with Cristian and Sandra Parra, telling them that “the final fight is the culture of peace, to learn how to cohabit among the differences. We will always have differences, and we will always have conflicts. Having conflicts, though, does not mean we have to start shooting one another; it means learning to negotiate and live together.”Pepe joined the campaign with the following letter: “To live is a miracle. Taking care of life is a duty. Thus, peace is built for everyone. Do not give up in overcoming all obstacles. To live is to fight to have time for all our passions.”