Accessibility links

Breaking News

At ‘Peace Camp,’ Colombian Youth Send a Message

FILE - Demonstrators hold hands to support a peace accord between the Colombian government and rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, at the main square in Bogota, Colombia, Oct. 8, 2016.

Dozens of activists have raised a multicolored, makeshift tent city in Bogota’s main square to demand the government and rebels save a deal meant to end a half-century of conflict — part of an outburst of activism across the country by Colombians stunned at last week’s unexpected defeat of the peace accord in a referendum.

The mostly youthful demonstrators at what’s called the “Peace Camp” reject any political affiliation. Organizers say their only goal is to make sure the peace deal signed last month by the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia isn’t scuttled.

The first two tents were raised the night of October 5 after as many as 25,000 people poured into the streets of downtown Bogota to back the rejected accord. Within less than a week, the impromptu encampment has grown to 70 tents surrounded by bunting in the color of the Colombian flag and adorned with white balloons and flowers symbolizing peace.

Hundreds of other Colombians joined the group in Bogota’s Plaza Bolivar on Wednesday to sew a giant quilt with the names of 1,900 victims of the conflict. Each of the names was written in giant block letters stenciled in ash on individual pieces of white cloth the length of a coffin.

Demonstrators install white sheets covered with the names of victims of Colombia’s internal conflict in downtown Bogota, Colombia, October 11, 2016. The giant quilt is part of artist Doris Salcedo’s “Adding Absences” project.
Demonstrators install white sheets covered with the names of victims of Colombia’s internal conflict in downtown Bogota, Colombia, October 11, 2016. The giant quilt is part of artist Doris Salcedo’s “Adding Absences” project.

“This is the act of mourning that hurts the most,” said conceptual artist Doris Salcedo, who has been overseeing an army of volunteers working on her “Adding Absences” project. “It’s not the mourning of a union leader, a presidential candidate or a journalist. It’s the grief of an entire country that has been buried in war.”

Supporters complacent

The peace agreement was negotiated over more than four years in Cuba, a process so globally admired that President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Backers were confident, and polls agreed, that Colombians would easily approve it in an October 2 referendum six days after the deal was signed in front of world leaders.

They proved to have been complacent. A narrow majority of voters rejected it, angry that it made too many concessions to a rebel group widely loathed for years of violence, kidnapping and drug trafficking.

Turnout was a mere 37 percent, lower than any congressional election in the past 22 years. Heavy rains from Hurricane Matthew held down voting in some areas along the Caribbean coast where support for the government is strongest. Backers of the deal are still convinced most Colombians favor it.

Each tent at the Peace Camp is hung with a cardboard sign naming rural towns notorious for political violence and places where the “yes” vote overwhelmingly won.

The referendum setback has forced Santos to scramble for some way to save the accord, even if it’s not clear what might happen next. The rebels say they don’t plan to return to the battlefield but have also rejected any notion they will return to the drawing board.

Nationwide, thousands of pro-peace demonstrators have also taken to the streets in Cali, Medellin and other cities, a rare sight in a country where political apathy is the norm.

Talks continue

Santos is holding talks both with the FARC and with conservative opponents led by former President Alvaro Uribe to find agreement on adjustments to the 297-page accord.

It’s an uphill battle. FARC leaders have said the referendum results have no legal effect. Uribe insists the voters’ will must be respected.

Uribe, a conservative hardliner whose father was killed by the FARC, is demanding changes the rebels are unlikely to accept. Those include having rebels guilty of war crimes serve up to eight years in rural penal colonies. The current accord spares them jail time if they confess their war crimes. He also wants to eliminate a provision pardoning rebels involved in drug trafficking.

“We’re fighting against the ego of a single person who wants to go down in history,” complained Jaqueline Sanchez, a 53-year-old social worker, referring to Uribe.

While she blames Uribe for misleading voters and dividing Colombians, she also faults her friends for being so passive and believing in the polls.

“The truth is we were negligent,” Sanchez said. “We never thought we were going to lose so we let others decide for us.”