breaking the cycle of violence

These are the Colombian war victims fighting to give peace a chance

Victor Galeano

BOGOTA —Laura Ulloa was taking her bus home from school when a group of hooded FARC guerrillas stopped the vehicle and climbed aboard. They flashed their machine guns and told all the kids to duck. One of the hooded men then walked towards Ulloa, who was just 11 at the time.

“They knew they were coming for me,” Ulloa told me.

That was on Sept. 20, 2001, in the city of Cali. But Ulloa, who now lives in Bogota, still remembers the moment vividly.

“When we were in the car, they started screaming at each other because they forgot to get my sister,” Ulloa recalls. The guerrillas tried to get Ulloa to reveal her sister’s whereabouts, but she refused. “They told me that if they found her, they would take her and kill me.”

Ulloa was held in a FARC jungle camp for seven months, until her family paid ransom to the guerrillas. During her whole time in captivity, she was only allowed three phone calls to her parents.

But despite having gone through this ordeal, Ulloa now supports the recently signed peace deal that would see guerrillas get no jail time for crimes like kidnappings and political assassinations. Ulloa says she has forgiven the guerrillas who kidnapped her, and supports the peace deal because she doesn’t want those types of crimes to be repeated in her country.

Laura Ulloa was a FARC hostage for seven months

Laura Ulloa was a FARC hostage for seven months

“I don’t want any other children to go through what I went through,” Ulloa told me over lunch. “I don’t want other parents to suffer what my parents suffered.”

On Oct. 2, Colombia will hold a plebiscite to decide the fate of a complex peace deal that would end 52 years of war.

Ulloa, now 26, is one of thousands of victims who are pushing for a “Yes” vote in favor of the peace treaty by talking to the media or speaking at rallies. Victims say they’re in a privileged position to tell their compatriots why they should vote in favor of the deal.

“Those who haven’t suffered from the war talk about the costs and benefits of the deal,” says Sebastian Arismendi, an accounting student whose father was kidnapped for five years by the FARC, then killed in circumstances that were never fully investigated. “But for many of us who have suffered the war, this isn’t about costs and benefits, this is about saving lives.”

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Sebastian Arismendi´s dad was kidnapped and killed by the guerillas

Although most Colombians want peace, there is a significant number of people who are opposed to the 293-page treaty, which was signed on Monday after four years of tense negotiations.

One of the most controversial parts of the accord is a provision that would pardon guerrilla leaders who committed war crimes such as kidnapping, extortion, and the execution of civilians. Instead they would go before a peace tribunal that will ask guerrilla leaders and soldiers to tell the truth about their human rights abuses.

Those who cooperate with investigators will get “alternative” sentences—something that hasn’t been fully spelled out yet, but would probably include community service in areas affected by the war. Opponents of the peace deal say the alternative penalties are not firm enough, and would set a dangerous precedent in a country where many crimes go unpunished.

“I wish that this treaty would have been negotiated by several sectors of society, and not just by the government and the guerrilla leadership,” says Juan David Lacoutoure, a cattle rancher and businessman who has had several members of his family kidnapped.

Lacouture is an activist for the “No” camp. He’d like to see war criminals behind bars, even if its just for a few years.

“The guerrilla leadership might get into politics,” he said. “But what about the rest? Those people are already experts at killing, kidnapping and handling guns.”

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More than 220,000 people have died in Colombia´s war

Supporters of the “Yes” camp say the peace deal will help demobilized rebels enroll in a reintegration program that has already been working with guerrilla deserters for the past 12 years. According to a recent study , 76% of guerrillas who entered the reintegration program have not committed crimes again.

“I think that everyone would have liked to see the guerrilla leaders pay more for what they have done,” says former kidnap victim Ulloa. “But if that is part of the price that we have to pay for peace, I am willing to pay it.”

The “price for peace” also includes giving the guerrillas a TV channel, 10% of all government funds earmarked for political parties, and 10 guaranteed seats in congress over the next two election cycles.

These type of concessions make some Colombians cringe, including General Luis Mendieta, who was captured by the FARC in battle and held prisoner in the jungle for 11 years. Mendieta says that he’s taking a “neutral” stance on the peace deal, and will neither promote it, nor campaign against it.

“I think the victims had to be better represented,” the retired General told me. “If they have ten seats in congress for the FARC, why aren’t there any seats for their victims?”

General Mendieta was held in the jungle for 11 years

General Mendieta was held in the jungle for 11 years

But campaigners for peace are asking Colombians to look beyond some of the contentious details of the treaty and see the bigger picture.

Sebastian Arismendi, the pro-peace deal campaigner who lost his father to the guerrillas, says that congressional seats “come and go,” but thousands of lives can be saved if peace is given the green light. A “No” vote would risk plunging the country back into war until another treaty could be negotiated.

“This is an ethical issue,” he told me outside his home, in Valle del Cauca state. Arismendi´s father was a state legislator who was kidnapped in 2002 along with 11 other politicians.

The accounting student remembers that at age six he would attend marches where hundreds of protesters asked the government and the guerrillas to sign a humanitarian agreement that included a prisoner exchange.

That deal never happened. Instead in 2007, the FARC executed 11 of the 12 lawmakers when the rebels thought —mistakenly—that a military platoon was approaching their camp.

Arismendi, now 19, said that initially, he wanted to kill his father’s murderers.

Arismendi shares his story at rallies for the "yes" campaignVictor Galeano

Arismendi shares his story at rallies for the "yes" campaign

“I became the best student in class so I could gain connections and knowledge that would help me to seek revenge” he says.

But he says that with time and with the support of his family he’s learned to forgive.

Now as a campaigner for the peace deal, Arismendi tells people his story. He says he has forgiven the FARC for what they did to his family, because it was the only way for him to move his life in a positive direction, free of resentment and rage. Now, Arismendi hopes Colombia will make a similar decision to move forward.

“In order to build a new country, it is better to forgive,” he told a group of several hundred people at a recent event in favor of the peace deal. “We can’t stay stuck in our painful past.”