Tag Archives: Historical Memory

The Ghosts of War & Questions of Peace

I could not sleep last night. I edited this post throughout the day but wrote it in the middle of the night, unable to sleep without first writing something. I was truly struck, dumbfounded, by the news that both the government of Colombia and the self-styled Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia  (FARC) are asking the UN and the CELAC to help monitor a bilateral ceasefire and a definitive end to hostilities. 

 

The news itself is not shocking – the peace process in Havana between the insurgents and the government has resulted in periodical historical breakthroughs (a deal on transitional justice, unprecedented participation of various victims’ groups in a peace process, etc). However, the location of this event within the 51 year history of war between the FARC and the State gave me pause.

 

For the first time in a generation, the dream of peace with Colombia’s most important rebel group is no longer a fantasy, but a tangible, realistic possibility. Many Colombians, including myself, would honestly never thought they would live to see this. Too many have not. Perhaps Colombia is starting to deal with its figurative ghosts.

 

I offer some reflections on the history that is being made here, on the war. For Colombians, one’s social location defines one’s relationship to the armed conflict, and I write this from the relative comfort of the Global North; part of my privilege is that the war is fortunately not a lived reality for me, it’s not an inescapable totality ending or interrupting life but glimpses of a brutal phenomenon in a distant supposed “homeland” to be escaped by merely putting down the book, putting back the letter, clicking past the headline, or turning off the television. Indeed, reflecting on the precarity of other lives in this war is a luxury testifying to my privilege produced by the very same violence.

 

A final caveat – I cannot and hope not to speak to our personal ghosts of this war. The spirits, memories, hauntings, denials, or our personal stories of war, or our connections to victims, perpetrators, and everyone in between must be respected; collective processes of attempting to reconcile with a history of brutality cannot coerce, erase, or appropriate personal narratives. I want to address collective ghosts, if we can speak of such a thing.

 

My thoughts on this moment in – and making – history.

 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez ended his Nobel masterpiece with this:

 

“[Races] condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth”.

 

This passage marked me; haunted me. It made me think, uncritically and pessimistically (as One Hundred Years is all about pessimism) that perhaps Colombia was condemned to war. From the genocide of the Indigenous peoples in the Spanish Conquests, the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans brought to work in Colombia’s mines, the wars for the word (but not the true condition) of “independence”, and the later conflicts between various ruling parties (depicted in Colombia’s most well-known book) to the conflicts of the present, for the last 500 years, violence has been the norm and peace has been the exception. Peace has been an interruption.

 

Now peace with the most important insurgency in the country is within reach. A momentum is building behind peace that will hopefully make for a significant interruption.

 

It’s hard to say what “peace” is or what it can or will be. It is something that will have to be struggled, defended, questioned, and collectively built. However, it is clear to me what peace with this rebel group will not be.
Peace with the FARC will not mean justice for the over 7 million victims of Colombia’s internal conflict. It will probably not give new opportunities to the young rebels who were raised on waging war. It will not bring back the dead, the disappeared, or return the land to the dispossessed. It will not restore the ties of Afro-descendent/Black and Indigenous peoples to ancestral lands that have been severed by the conflict. It will not heal the injured or the maimed. It will not bring back the years lost for those kidnapped by the rebels. It will not bring truth, or any kind of agreement on what actually took place during the war. It will not mean peace with the other major insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN). It will not mean peace with the drug cartels, nor peace with the paramilitaries/private armies of landed elites that displace peasants. It will not mean an end to the “Dirty War” of selective killings of labour union leaders, community leaders, dissidents, or activists; most of the nation will only come to know its  leaders through reports of their deaths, and not engagements with their lives. It will not mean peace with the violences of inequality, economic exploitation, nor land dispossession by the multinationals. It will not end Colombia’s rampant classist, sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic violences. It will not bring true democracy. And despite the undoubted prominence to come of this term if an agreement is reached, it will not bring reconciliation, and we will not all forgive each others’ atrocities.

 

 

A Colombia at peace with the FARC will only be a utopia in the marketing materials of the government to tourists and foreign investors.

 

Peace is not an answer. It may not even be an attainable or definable condition. However, if war has been the permanent answer that Colombia has had to many of its ills, peace can be an interrupting question.

 

Maybe – just maybe – some communities can – for the first time in over half a century – not wake up to another day of the horrors of of a conflict in which both sides wage war against them, and no side fights for them. For some communities, perhaps machine gun fire can abandon the soundscape, letting private whispers demanding justice to be cried out in plazas. Perhaps, for some, sophisticated American smart bombs and crude rebel landmines can stop dismembering bodies and communities. Perhaps womens’ bodies will no longer be soldiers’ spoils of war, objects attached to conquered territory. Perhaps “To Disappear” will be a verb with less currency in the popular lexicon. Perhaps some will no longer have to obey the gaze of the rifles. Perhaps, for some, declared neutrality or suspected partisanship will no longer invite destruction.

 

Perhaps the magnitude of risking one’s life will no longer be a spectre on the minutiae of necessary daily movements. Perhaps emptying territories of soldiers and rebels will allow communities to create ‘geographies without terror’. Perhaps some of the calm felt in the cities’ shopping malls and country clubs can leap through the social chasm to ‘The Other Colombia’, to the overexploited ruralities who have experienced the waves of massacres, bombings, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, militarized sexual violences forgotten or denied by the urban elite. Perhaps the urban elite can stop ‘discovering’ their own national geography by news of the most recent massacre in an otherwise forgotten and nameless small rural town. Perhaps we can begin to not only remember, but begin to know  these places by their names and complexities beyond the abjectivity of their tragedies. Perhaps comforting national narratives can be shaken by the impossibility of writing this history of war, perhaps – appropriately – history can become difficult to tell.

 

Maybe – just maybe – the entire country can follow the lead of many courageous movements and communities in the interminable work of demanding justice, of speaking of and to the unspeakable horrors, of confronting the incredibly present spectres of a past haunted by violence. Perhaps we can begin to engage our national ghosts. We may never exorcise all of them completely – nor should we; as memory can be act of resistance, and amnesia can dehumanize. But perhaps we can begin to learn how to live with our national ghosts, how to allow them to live with us. It will never be complete.

 

The armed conflict is irreducible to narratives, it is an extremely complex condition, however, these help motivate it. The war has not only produced hauntings, it has been produced by them.

 

Slavoj Zizek says that all revolutions attempt to redeem the ghosts of past failed revolutions.

 

The Marxist FARC insurgency has been haunted by the ghosts of dispossessed peasants and a repressed Left in the 40s. This spirit has been nourished by later State repression. The rebels’ religion of a people’s revolution against the owners and exploiters would be corrupted by the demons of drug trafficking, kidnapping,  human rights abuses, becoming more arrogant, and turning against the population they claimed to represent.

 

The State’s counter-insurgency is also motivated by spectres from Colombia, and from other lands. For Colombia’s patron, the United States, the spectre of another Cuban or Sandinista Revolution in “its backyard” is terrifying, abhorrent, unacceptable and impermissible. This spectre has gripped Bogota and Washington into a deep obsession: the aspirations of alternatives to their social orders were systematically disciplined by attacking the bodies who hold them. Rallying cries for change were muted by the roar of repression, imposing silences of terror. These suspicions continue today.

 

The peace process is trying to purge Colombia of these spirits. However, if they remain on the land, hungry enough, being able to feed on something, they may still haunt the future.

 

Therefore, perhaps this peace is an illusion; a disguise for a new war which is not yet visible. Maybe the foundational violences of colonialism and/or the social stratification of Colombian society will produce new militarized social, political or criminal conflicts. It could be that certain ghosts are not ready to be laid to rest. Perhaps Marquez is right about our condemnation to history.

 

As the great American street poet Tupac Shakur once said:

 

“We can’t have peace until we all get a piece”.

 

As they say, only time will tell. Hopefully the future will answer some of the questions of the past…(or better yet, question some of its answers).

 

Let me end by coming full circle with Gabo Marquez: One of the turning points in One Hundred Years of Solitude is the Banana Workers Massacre. This was an actual massacre that was perpetrated against a labour action by workers of the United Fruit Company in Colombia and between 3 and 3,000 people were killed in 1929. It is emblematic of a larger history  in Colombia of repressing organized labour through murder for the interests and designs of (usually foreign) capital. In Marquez’ fiction, only one member of the community knows about the massacre – everyone else in Macondo is told by the authorities that nothing happened. No one believes the survivor. Marquez himself has said that “perhaps only 3 or 4 people died”. Was it 3, or 3,000? Again, Marquez’s genius has much to teach the Colombian peace process. If war is a contest of soldiers, peace will be a contest of surviving memories. We may never have answers for our ghosts.

 

And like the silence in Macondo of the massacre, perhaps some stories will remain too true to tell………

 

 

 

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Bojayá: Forgotten by Urbanity, Remembered by the community.

The final part of the three part series on the 11th anniversary of the massacre/Genocide of Bojayá published at Colombia Politics. 

Other interesting links worth checking out is this documentary on the experience of people displaced from Bellavista by the violence, this photo-report on the bellavisteños who were displaced and are trying to make a new life in Quibdó. I’d also like to again emphasize that much of my research for this post came from the Commission of Historical Memory of Colombia and their report on Bojayá, “The Massacre of Bojayá: The War Without Limits“. I would also encourage bilingual readers to check out these series of radio interviews with survivors of the genocide who are memorializing in their own words.

Bojayá, Chocó: The forgotten Colombia

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The communities of Bojayá, in Chocó, and Afro-descendent and indigenous peoples more generally, still face serious challenges and oppressions by the Colombian state, armed actors, and multinational corporations.

Chocó continues to be a FARC, ELN, and (neo-)paramilitary stronghold where groups fight over gold, land for agribusiness, drug trafficking routes, and the obedience of the population living on the rich land.

It is still a central point for the conflict, and produces a disproportionate amount of displacements; most displaced chocoanos end up in Quibdó, or in Medellín where they experience the additional issue of systematic racism and discrimination against people who are rural, chocoano, or displaced.

Chocó is ironically one of the richest areas of Colombia in terms of resources and since the 80s has been the apple of the eye of forestry, agribusiness, but especially mining companies.  Conflict between the communities and multinationals like AngloGold Ashanti has encouraged President Santos to rethink the mining codes.

Chocó also has some of Colombia´s worst indicators in terms of development. Literacy rates a relatively poor, and poverty is over 60%. In the Atrato region, 95% of the population has basic unsatisfied needs, according to government figures.

All these challenges are taken on by the organizations which promote the rights of the indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and displaced populations of Chocó.

These groups include  the “Association of the Displaced People of the 2nd of May (ADOM)”, the “Diocesis of Quibdó” which works through the Comission for Life, Justice, and Peace, “The Regional Organization for the Emberá-Wounaan or OREWA, the “Association of the Indigenous Chiefs of Emberá, Wounaan, Katió, Chamí and Tule” or ASOREWA, and the “Major Community Council of the Integral Peasant Association of the Atrato” or COCOMACIA who have their roots in the struggles for protecting the land against large forestry companies in the 1980s.

These groups do their work despite threats by armed groups.

What does Bojayá mean for Colombia?

We talk of Bojayá as if it were our crisis and the FARC were our terrorists who we must defeat.

And although the story of Bojayá is similar to that of much of Colombia in which local communities and their ways of life are disturbed and uprooted by national dynamics – who are not interested in them but only in what their suffering can get them-  we must understand that although we are all Colombian or even human, there are significant racial, class, rural/urban, and cultural divisions which means that we cannot appropriate the voice or the suffering of the people of Bojayá.

The people of Bojayá have been mistreated and exploited through a process of objectification and silencing since colonization – first they were under the thumb of the colonizers, then the national government who only wishes to extract their riches or speak for their community as part of its counterinsurgency or reparations plans, and now it is menaced by armed groups and multinationals.

The question is whether, when we commemorate the massacre (as we did last week), we allow the community space in which it can be heard on its own terms – or whether the urban, modern Colombia is forced to remember the other, rural (and largely ignored) Colombia only on important anniversaries, when a show can be made?

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The Bojayá massacre, Uribe, and Plan Colombia

The second instalment of three about the massacre of Bojayá and the lack of attention its’ anniversary has received this year, which was graciously published over at Colombia Politics.

For more context on the massacre of Bojayá, check out the first post.

Bojayá massacre, Uribe and Plan Colombia

IMAGEN-11677964-1 Photo: El Tiempo

The massacre of Bojayá represented a low point in war in terms of mistreatment of the civilian population in Colombia, but its horror marks an important moment in the nation´s recent political history ocurring at a turning point in the battle against the FARC guerrillas.

Plan Colombia and elections

The genocide occurred in May 2002, while in February the then President, Andrés Pastrana Arango had called off the four year long peace talks with the FARC, citing a lack of political will on behalf of the guerrillas,

The tragic events in Bojayá occurred during an election campaign in which a fringe-candidate with a “mano dura”/hardline law-and-order agenda, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, emerged on the national stage. The massacre served as political fodder for the then candidate to further paint the FARC as genocidal narcoterrorists needing to be militarily defeated.

Uribe later won the 2002 elections in the first round/without needing a run-off, an historic first in Colombian politics. As President, Uribe (and Pastrana as well beforehand) used the genocide as part of a campaign to get the FARC on “terrorist” lists in the European Union, the United States, Canada and other countries so as to legitimate a military rather than a political solution to end the armed conflict.

Meanwhile, in 1999 Andrés Pastrana had negotiated with Bill Clinton a multi-billion dollar aid package which, although partially focusing on economic development, was mostly military aid. The deal, which was at first framed around fighting narcotrafficking and the War on Drugs was known as “Plan Colombia” and made Colombia the no. 2 recipient of US military aid in the world, behind Turkey.

Following the attacks of September 11th 2001, and after the genocide and the election of Uribe in 2002, the Plan Colombia money was used also to fight the FARC and was seen as a strange convergence between the interests of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

Plan Colombia funcs were used to professionalize the army, leading to an historic high in military spending, known domestically as “Plan Patriota”/the Patriot Plan. This plan expanded the presence of the Army into the most marginal and peripheral areas of Colombia in order to fight the guerrillas. The knock on effect of this expansion was to  increase – rather than reduce – violence in the Chocó region in subsequent years.

As Plan Colombia was rolled out, concern grew within the State Department and the US Congress about links between the Colombian Army and the Paramilitary AUC who fought against the FARC.

Survivors´ voices ignored, or forgotten?

Uribe had been warned of the US distaste, and in response, as part of a “reparations” package, constructed ‘The New Bellavista’ (a new church and housing development). All this was done to a more modern and western style, totally foreign to the Afro-Colombian tradition of the local population. And strangely when inaugurating the “New Bellavista”, President Uribe gave his speech exclusively in English.

Many community members (whose language is of course Spanish), felt that the government was using Bellavista – as a community and a project to “show off” as part of its reparations agenda. An affront then, that it seemed as though the government was directing its initiatives to improving its international image and not the people who had actually been affected by the massacre.

Worse still, many of the economic aid projects established by the government and the NGOs were seen as unsustainable; creating dependency rather than development. All of the initiatives in ‘New Bellavista’ were considered by the displaced population in Quibdó to ignore their needs.

Last year, as the 10th anniversary of the massacre was marked, much attention was given to how the community still lacks a medical centre and other basic needs. This, despite the Constitutional Court having declared the community entitled to such investment as part of the reparation package. So, 11 years on and the community stills appears forgotten, the victims of the war not properly attended to, or represented.

There is, too, very little comfort to be taken from the way in which justice has been dealt. 36 members of the FARC-EP, including members of the Secretariat, have been involved in judicial processes concerning the massacre, but only 8 have been convicted. No charges have been brought before the AUC paramilitaries, and least of all now given the legal benefits afforded to them as part of their 2003-2006 demobilization.

Part three of this report will look at the challenges the community still faces, and offer a view for the future.

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The Genocide of Bojayá: 11 years of impunity

This was a guest-post I did for Colombia Politics on the 11th anniversary of the massacre of Bojayá. The first in a three part series. The majority of my research for it came from the amazing work on Historical Memory dune by the Grupo de Memoria Histórica and their report, “La Massacre de Bojayá: La Guerra Sin Límites”/”The Massacre of Bojayá: The War Without Limits”. The initiatives by the BMH this year attempted to create a space where the community is heard in their own words, and I strongly encourage you to check it out if you understand Spanish.

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Photo: Mauricio Moreno, El Tiempo

Thursday marked the 11th anniversary of the massacre of Bojayá in Chocó, Colombia. Anywhere from 79 people, the majority of whom were minors, were killed when the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), the Marxist guerrillas, launched an explosive into a church in the community of Bellavista where 300 people were seeking protection from a battle between the revolutionaries and the paramilitaries.

Every year, chocoano communities commemorate the massacre, and use it as a space to advocate for their rights facing current challenges of poverty and marginalization. For the tenth anniversary of the massacre, it was all over the media, yet this year, there is scant word from any of the nation’s major newspapers including El Tiempo, El Espectador, Semana, etc.

This massacre had huge implications in national politics, Colombia’s image abroad, its relationship with the United States, and most importantly, it evidences the huge gap between ‘The Two Colombias’, and how one promises reparation, and the other is still waiting for it 11 years after one of the country’s worst tragedies.

The massacre bears not only memorializing, but also understanding as it is a microcosm for state abandonment, and the interests and dynamics of how paramilitarism and the guerrillas work within peripheral, marginalized, underdeveloped, and overexploited regions of Colombia like Chocó.

bojaya2The FARC shot the cylinder-bomb which exploded in the church, allegedly, because the counter-revolutionary paramilitaries were using the church as a human shield during the combat. Many of the civilians fled into the church given that it was the only concrete structure in the town where people could be protected during the armed confrontations between different armed groups. Apparently, the order to shoot the cylinder-bomb came from as high as members of the Secretariat (who some analysts now say they would like to see in Congress instead of continuing in the armed struggle), and the decision to use this illegal and non-conventional weapon was made despite the fact that the weapon is made for static objects, and the paramilitaries were moving.

In other words, it was quite clear to many powerful leaders within the FARC the tremendous danger that using this weapon posed for the civilians caught in the crossfire.

Despite many early warnings by the UN, and a variety of NGOs, it seems that the Colombian Army was complicit in allowing the incursion of paramilitaries in the territory that set off a several day long armed confrontation in the Middle Atrato region of Chocó which eventually culminated in the massacre.

The Colombian government refused to acknowledge its responsibility. The FARC-EP say that it was an “unfortunate accident” and it blamed the paras for using the civilian population as a human shield. The government and the paras said that this proves the ‘barbarity’ of the ‘narcoterrorists’.

The use of the improvised explosive, or pipeta in Spanish, constitutes the use of irregular weapons by the FARC and is therefore a war crime and potentially a crime against humanity. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other international NGOs as well as Colombian ones have condemned the FARC’s use of the weapon as such.

The massacre, and combat between guerrillas and paramilitaries which had begun in late April of that year, are part of a much larger trend in which Chocó has become a focal point for the armed conflict since 1997.

The war over the Middle Atrato can be considered as a continuation of the war for Urabá. After the federation of paramilitary groups into the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia or AUC) in 1997, paramilitary groups tried to take the Atrato region of Chocó as it was a key corridor for moving drugs, arms, and people from the Urabá region and the Caribbean coast (which by the 90s had become a paramilitary stronghold) into the Pacific region of the country.

Previous expansions of the counterinsurgency in the territory such as the Cacarica and Genesis Operations in 1997 have been linked to the expansion of agribusinesses such as the mono-cultivation of African Palm Oil.

At the same time, the strategic corridor and lack of state presence in Chocó also makes it a very coveted territory by the guerrillas.

The massacre can be seen as part of a much larger pattern of the insurgents taking over the territory, then the counterinsurgents, then the insurgents…

This left, and continues to leave, the people of chocoano communities in a state of vulnerability as the presence of one armed group or the army provokes reprisals and suspicions from the other side.

However, the communities in Chocó were anything but passive objects in the crossfire; since 1999, communities such as Bellavista, have declared themselves ‘Peace Communities’ (Comunidades de Paz) and they have rejected the presence of all armed groups, including even at times the Colombian Army itself.

The massacre led to mass displacements of 5,700 people, and consequently a cultural alienation for the predominantly Afro-Colombian communities affected, who had to leave their traditional territory.

Many of the survivors had to flee the town of Bellavista immediately after the bomb exploded. Many have yet to return to the community, some only returned 8-10 years later. Many of the community’s practices of saying farewell to the dead were unable to occur, leaving a lack of spiritual closure.

Survivors of the massacre however, are not victims. 11 years on and that the community continues to wait for the reparations it is entitled to, and justice in terms of recognizing the complicity of ALL armed actors. The community has, though, organized in several civil-society groups and continues to demand this justice, reparation, and memory.

Many members in the community see the massacre as genocide and a continuation of their historical  displacement from Africa; many consider the battles over their territories as ongoing colonialism.

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