Breaking Barriers

As the war ends in Colombia, civilians become pen pals with FARC guerrillas

Manuel Rueda

Camila Robayo was devastated when she found out that Colombia voted against a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. In the gloomy days that followed the unexpected defeat of that deal, she trawled the web for information on why her country had said no to a treaty aimed at ending the hemisphere’s longest civil war.

Then she was introduced to a group that was encouraging people to write letters to the FARC. The group asked people to send the guerrillas a message of hope, so that they wouldn’t desist from peace talks with the Colombian government.

“I thought it was a great idea,” said Robayo, who currently lives in San Francisco, CA. “And since I don’t live in Colombia and couldn’t participate in the street protests [following the “No” vote] I thought it was the perfect way for me to express my feelings.”

The peace deal was eventually signed last November—after a series of revisions—and an unexpected relationship is now emerging between Robayo and a guerrilla fighter named Leidy Vélez. This week, Robayo got a handwritten letter from Vélez, who now lives in a camp where the rebels are preparing for civilian life.

“I want to thank you for your beautiful letter,” Vélez tells Robayo in the note, dated Jan. 18. “We must leave hate and rancor behind. All of us deserve a new opportunity.”

FARC a Camila RobayoRobayo received this letter from FARC fighter Leidy Vélez

More than 500 Colombians wrote letters to FARC guerrillas after the October plebiscite on the peace deal. Fundación Enlaza, one of the organizers of the snail–mail exchange, says that so far, they have gotten 81 handwritten replies from rebel fighters in Colombia’s Antioquia Department.

The letter exchange—promoted via Facebook—is breaking social barriers by putting urban Colombians directly in touch with rural guerrilla fighters who live in isolated areas of the country. It is also helping people realize that they may have something in common with a guerrilla force that was long depicted as a terrorist organization and is still viewed with suspicion in Colombia’s cities.

“There is a general message of peace and reconciliation from both sides, a message that we are tired of war,” said Juana Oberlaender, from Fundación Enlaza.

Oberlaender recently received a batch of letters from a contact who visited a FARC camp. She scanned them and posted them on the group’s Facebook page for everyone to see.

“Some of the letters are not addressed to anyone in particular, so we say they are for all of us,” she told me over the phone.

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Colombia concluded peace talks with the FARC last November. In coming months, the country must integrate some 7,000 former guerrillas into society by helping them obtain jobs, education, and social services.

For many, accepting the fighters back into communities will be a challenge. The guerrillas committed hideous war crimes during their struggle against the Colombian government, including kidnappings, bombings, and forcible recruitment of children into the war.

Oberlaender hopes that initiatives like the letter­­–writing campaign will help to break down years of mistrust. She says the letters show people that it is possible to communicate with, and even befriend, somebody who may have radically different views and life experiences.

“Our ultimate goal is to maintain a conversation between citizens and former combatants,” she said.

The letters also give readers a window into the mindset of a FARC fighter, revealing their education level—many are riddled with spelling mistakes—the guerrilla’s aspirations, and their rationale for having joined the war.

One of the letters that arrived at Fundación Enlaza this week was from Nathalia, a guerrilla fighter who said she joined the rebel organization at age 13, when paramilitary groups attacked her family.

“Being just 13, I thought that I also had hands, and I could also handle a weapon,” Nathalia writes in her letter. “So I joined the guerrillas, so that the [paramilitaries] could not mess with me anymore.”

In her letter FARC fighter Nathalie explained why she joined the war

In her letter FARC fighter Nathalie explained why she joined the war

“You see a lot of toughness in those letters, but also a lot of need for affection and friendship,” says Cecilia López, a high school teacher who participated in the letter exchange.

López said that teachers in her school are preparing to show the guerrillas’ letters to their students.

“It’s a tremendous way to learn about the history of our country,” López said. “Those letters show another side of the conflict, the voice of other people, who are also fighting for similar goals.”

Camila Robayo said the letter exchange made her feel like she finally did something for peace and reconciliation in her country. Colombia’s peace process was handled mostly by politicians and FARC leaders, who held negotiations behind closed doors for four years.

Robayo wrote this letter to the FARC in October

Robayo wrote this letter to the FARC in October

“I had never spoken to a guerrilla before,” Robayo said. “But after getting Leidy’s letter, I felt like even though it was painful to see so many people voting against the peace deal, there are many others who are willing to give peace a chance.”