On Friday August 26, as Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos marched through a narrow street towards Bogotá’s Capitolio Nacional, Colombian civilians glimpsed the start of something they had not seen for decades: peace. Surrounded by his family and Cabinet members, President Santos hand delivered a 297-page accord to Colombia’s congressional center detailing a revolutionary peace deal with the country’s largest rebel group, Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (also known as FARC). Although the deal can not be officially ratified until a public referendum is held on October 2, 2016, its passage will likely herald the end to the longest war ever seen in the Western Hemisphere. While civilians have been awaiting this day for years, there is undoubtedly a hint of caution in the air as well. What have the Colombian government and FARC compromised to make this deal, and how will those born in the jungle readjust to a normal lifestyle?

Understanding the origins of the conflict requires a closer look at the political and social undercurrents that have dominated Colombia for over a century.

From 1948 to 1958, a period of fighting between Colombia’s Liberal and Conservative parties claimed the lives of over 200,000 rural Colombians. The killing and displacement of agrarian civilians dramatically increased socioeconomic disparities and sparked the rise of the leftist rural movement adopted by the Colombian Communist Party (PCC). The head of PCC, Manual Marulanda, led thousands of people to settle in the countryside of Tolima away from the national government, a move that unified the interests of Colombia’s neglected rural population.

The Colombian military responded to Marulanda’s movement with force in May 1964. Their swift attack on Tolima was met by Marulanda and dozens of untrained but impassioned guerilla soldiers. Those who survived united under a banner of resistance: FARC. In order to expand its influence, FARC began defending and recruiting from rural cities, providing provisional medical services, and carrying out attacks against pro-government paramilitary groups. The insurgency’s size grew exponentially as it spread to Colombia’s hinterlands and jungles. To fund new objectives and rapid expansion, FARC commanders started kidnapping civilians, extorting government officials, and trafficking cocaine. Their violent resistance over the last several decades has come at a cost: the conflict left 260,000 people dead, 45,000 missing, and nearly seven million displaced, with human rights atrocities committed on both sides.

Those familiar with the conflict say a peace deal was as inevitable as the original violence. David Simon, a professor of Political Science at Yale, noted in an interview with The Politic that the parties “seem to be an artifact of an earlier day that have simply adapted to new times,” with both sides taking losses for antiquated causes.

Although FARC’s resistance has dwindled in recent years under new leadership, the consequences of its actions are permanent; FARC only announced this May that it would stop using child soldiers in active combat. The concession was a huge victory for Colombia’s human rights advocates, who have opposed FARC’s reliance on teenage kidnapping and forced enlistment for years. The scope of FARC’s dependence on child soldiers was not revealed until 2012, when a UN report cited over half of adult FARC combatants having joined as minors. They furthered that FARC has recruited nearly 12,000 Colombian children since 1975. In some cases, the recruitment process was coercive; leaders would lure children away from their family or take them directly out of their homes. In other cases, however, the process was cyclical–scarce economic opportunity, widespread corruption, and unstable families left many children with no better alternative.

Many of FARC’s child soldiers do not return the same person. The psychological trauma of war remains their largest obstacle after leaving a violent environment. Children are tasked with anything from intelligence gathering and cooking to laying landmines or assisting kidnapping and assassination attempts. Colombian girls have it the worst–many are sexually assaulted by their own commander as a means of indoctrination. These experiences often leave a prominent psychological scar. About 80% of demobilized recruits have serious mental health issues, and about half suffer from sleep disorders and drug addiction.

The Colombian government recognizes the physical and psychological toll on child soldiers. President Santos currently supports a rehabilitation program for children similar to one employed in Central Africa in which former child soldiers are placed into homes or schools as a buffer between insurgency and civility. In general, the programs are effective at allowing children to live to a normal lifestyle. Professor Simon notes that in these environments “children are adaptable, and if the right opportunities are provided, they will seize them.” But despite mostly positive results, other cases reflect the pervasive political and social tensions that exist in Colombia. Some children say they feel a lack of identity and are caught in a social limbo, belonging neither to the FARC or the Colombian society that was taken away from them years prior. Despite its ostensible success, the reintegration programs often force children to enter a world that denies their history in the FARC, a world without a place for them to reflect on their story and mourn what they left behind.

The children returning from the jungle hold the future of Colombia in their hands. Entering a new world allows them the freedom to choose a new path in life, a path without a prescribed direction. In post-conflict countries, there is precedent for children reintegrated into society in a positive way to become activist voices for political change in their communities. Should the reintegration programs fail some of the children, however, it is feasible that they could fall back to a lifestyle of rebellion. When discussing whether the peace deal would truly mark the end of the FARC, Professor Simon predicted that “there will likely be a split between those content with the political option and those alienated by it…the most successful strategy for [those remaining] would be to take up arms in the name of a new criminal syndicate.” Without the proper support, children who feel alienated by reintegration programs may fall victim to uprising criminal organizations which are projected to spawn now that the reigns of Colombia’s narco-trafficking industry are up for grabs.

Insurgent soldiers and Colombian civilians alike will find themselves in a very different country than the one they remember as they cautiously turn the page on decades of Marxist insurgency. Colombia’s dualistic central government has relied on its conflict with rebel groups to remain centered despite volatile conditions in South America. Some peace deal negotiations were less than ideal for President Santos, who essentially staked his entire candidacy on the agreement, and it is not unlikely that Colombia’s congress will experience changes unlike anything it has seen before by the end of the year. In a move heavily criticized by human rights organizations and conservative political opponents, President Santos agreed to eliminate prison sentences for any FARC soldiers who confess their crimes, and instead only give reduced sentences that require community service in areas significantly affected by the war. Additionally, President Santos conceded to preserving at least 10 congressional seats for members of FARC’s nameless political movement.

Current polls indicate that the referendum set for October 2 will be overwhelmingly confirmed, and the United Nations has already begun to set up disarmament camps, overhaul anti-narcotics strategy, and most importantly monitor the reintegration of children back into cities. It is these children who best recognize what political shortcomings motivated people to join FARC in the first place, and who have the most potential to fix these shortcomings in the future. Peace in Colombia becomes more and more of a reality every day. But it still remains to be seen if two groups of people who have opposed each other so vehemently for so long can live together in harmony. As Colombian citizens attempt to put over 50 years of bloodshed behind them and turn their heads towards the future, one thing is for certain: the historically muted voices of the generation returning from the jungle must be heard.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *