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No time for sadness, only for hope

“There was no Time for Sadness”  is the title of the Colombian National Centre of Historical Memory’s flagship documentary about the evolution of the armed conflict in the country. These challenging words capture the hundreds of testimonials collected by the Centre’s investigative team, the Group of Historical Memory, which was tasked with compiling the varied effects of the conflict in communities across the nation into one cohesive report. It features a number of resilient victims selected from hundreds of Colombians to describe the pain their communities have endured and the hope that continues to mobilize them as they reconstruct their collective and personal stories.  

With a delicate collage of testimonials, “There was no Time for Sadness” attempts to do justice to the complexity of a war that is often misrepresented in both local and international media – a war characterized by the silencing of victims on all sides of the right-to-left political spectrum. The documentary summarizes a 430-page report that recounts the continually escalating conflict hiding beneath Colombia’s beautiful landscapes and hopeful communities. What is most significant about this work is that it attempts to counter the main source of momentum for the conflict – that is, the elimination of the notion of the victim from public discourse.

More robust peace process
Since April 9, 2012, Colombians have commemorated the annual “National Day of Remembrance and Solidarity with the Victims of the Armed Conflict.” This initiative emerged out of a large societal movement spearheaded by the National Centre for Historical Memory, and it was supported by a number of community organizations, churches and international partners. The first commemoration of the “Day of Remembrance” followed the signing of the peace agreement involving the government of Colombia and the rebels of FARC-EP, Colombia’s largest armed guerrilla. The commemoration was highly anticipated by communities around the country as a central feature of their local Truth and Reconciliation processes.

Aside from providing space for victims to be recognized, remembered and embraced, April 9, 2017 marked an occasion for activists to hold heated public rallies and debates on the legitimacy of the agreement and the place of justice in the peace discussion. Opinions on the outcome of the 2017 “Day of Remembrance” vary. For the majority of the Colombian press, the event was a failure – a reminder of the fragile state of Colombian politics after the contested agreement between the government and FARC-EP. However, some social media writers reminded their readers that the day should be understood as a positive opportunity for the citizenry to express its radically diverse opinions about the peace process.

On October 2, 2016 the government of Colombia held a plebiscite to ratify the peace agreement it had previously reached with the rebels of FARC-EP. The plebiscite was designed to encourage the reintegration of FARC-EP insurgents to their communities of origin, and to facilitate the transition of its leaders to political life. In a surprising turn of events, the “Final Agreement to End the Armed Conflict and Build Lasting Peace” was rejected by the Colombian electorate, which questioned the legitimacy of the dialogues and endangered the much-anticipated end of armed conflict.

While the unexpected outcome of the plebiscite was a setback, it did not altogether capsize the results of these dialogues. An amended version of the agreement that incorporated some of the suggestions brought forward by the opposition was officially submitted to congress and approved by its two houses last November. Delegates of the government and FARC-EP’s secretariat signed a revised agreement on November 11 in the midst of intense debate.

The polarization surrounding the agreement gave rise to a political phenomenon quite foreign to Colombians. The systemic “silencing” of dissident voices that was a definitive feature of previous peace processes did not occur this time around. Some say that a safer political climate has nurtured the transformation of city squares, social media platforms and national holidays into venues for different sectors of society to openly express their opinions about the agreement. This heated exchange continues to unfold through a series of national conversations and debate, gradually empowering more and more of the civil population to speak.

The National Centre for Historical Memory is one of the most significant agents in the construction of this new national story. The Centre’s dedication to making the voices of the victims a central component of a new identity for Colombians fueled a deep yearning for a peaceful solution. One important conclusion drawn by the group of researchers at the Centre pointed to the localized nature of the conflict and, consequently, to the need for involvement of local communities in designing paths of lasting reconciliation.

Conflict-resolution and reconciliation are extremely difficult, especially for communities that have never experienced life in harmony. Yet this is precisely the current situation for most of Colombia’s rural communities. Beyond the complexities of bringing a conflict to an end in places that continue to bear the open wounds of a tragic past and an uncertain future, the civilian population of Colombia’s countryside currently carries the weight of having no memories of peace. Through the Truth and Reconciliation process, these communities have been called to develop strategies for peaceful coexistence that are completely unprecedented in their lifetimes.  

Fruitful discussions
I have been privileged enough to work with Telemar, a regional television station based in Buenaventura, whose goal is to work towards the construction of a new local story rooted in principles of peaceful coexistence. Buenaventura, which is Colombia’s most important port on the pacific coast, is also one of the most remote places in the country – devastated by armed conflict, governmental absenteeism and corruption. Through the creation of television spaces for dialogue about the peace process, the managing team of Telemar provided the citizens of Buenaventura with tools to understand what the peace process meant for their local communities, and to develop strategies for responding to the call for reconciliation.   

Telemar established a series of live television panels featuring church leaders, local business owners, academics and other community leaders. Each panel covered a topic related to the peace process, working to make complex legal and academic concepts accessible to local communities. These panels allowed community members to articulate definitions of concepts such as “restorative practice,” “transitional justice” and “post-conflict,” before applying them to concrete realities. Facilitating interaction between victims and perpetrators was particularly important, as both will be reunited soon through a reintegration process outlined by the peace agreement.

I joined these panels remotely, learning a great deal from excellent intuitions that had already emerged within the local communities about societal restoration, collective and personal healing, and governance in the absence of the capable state. As the sessions progressed, my role evolved from “expert” to “moderator” with respect to the fruitful discussion that was already taking place in the region. As an outsider with some understanding of the regional conflict, I was honored to facilitate discussions, and to constantly remind participants of the great progress they had already achieved at local levels. The community seemed ready to respond to the call of reconciliation brought about by the peace process.

There have been many moments of consolation and healing in Buenaventura since the peace process began, most of them emerging out of new stories being generated out of these local communities. Many of the region’s victims continue to peacefully work toward a dialogical resolution to the conflict – one that recognizes the need for cooperation at all levels and sectors of society. It is my hope and that of many others that these conversations, peaceful demonstrations, open debates and commemorations continue to enable Colombians to remain hopeful and resilient in the midst of their pain.   


  • Héctor is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy of Religion at the ICS. He currently leads the “Youth in Dialogue” project at the Scarboro Missions’ Interfaith Department and teaches at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary as an adjunct faculty member.

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