Will there be peace in Colombia?

ColombiaThe political price for a little peace

In mid-October, over thirty degrees. The Venezuelan Maria is crying. The 65-year-old has just left the dangerous and arduous route to the illegal border crossing from Venezuela to Colombia behind. Has arrived in the northeast, in the border town. Without food but with a lot of despair in my stomach. The Venezuelan Maria, who came to Colombia via an unofficial border path, together with Elbert Roja, pastor in Cúcuta. (Philipp Lichterbeck, Adveniat)

"I ask God to help us. That God helps Venezuela. That is what drives me every day. There is nothing with us, nothing! I ask God to help us, to help Venezuela, that is I ask! "

Maria doesn't want to stay in Colombia. House and children are waiting for them in Caracas. The short, stocky woman with the turquoise-green blouse, denim skirt and sneakers regularly hitchhikes to the border for five hours to get her medicine. Because they no longer exist in President Maduro's empire.

Refugees from Venezuela on the border with Colombia - from there many travel on to Peru (AP / Fernando Vergara)

"The distances are long, the travel costs are high. But there is nothing there. Nothing at all. You cannot live there. We simply have nothing at home. A kilo of cheese costs 50,000 bolivars. People are starving, they are very emaciated, they die."

Maria has a passport and could also use a legal border crossing instead of this illegal so-called "trocha" - the border to Colombia is still permeable. The route it takes is dangerous: In the border area - and in some cases well beyond the border - groups of the Marxist ELN, the "National Liberation Army" and FARC dissidents are active, remnants of the "Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia". The left guerrilla, which after decades of tough fighting, laid down its arms three years ago and negotiated a peace agreement with the government. But Maria is even more afraid of contagious diseases and the scorching sun than the ELN and FARC and possible attacks by criminals on the three hundred meter long Simón Bolívar Bridge, the legal border crossing nearby.

Great challenge for Colombia - tens of thousands of Venezuelans flock over the Simón Bolívar Bridge to Colombia every day, some just to work, some forever. (Isabella Kolar)

Illusion of hope and security

Escape on wheels - masses of wheeled suitcases are busily dragged across the concrete. Heavy bags and small children lie on sweaty shoulders. People with stressed faces have been hurrying to change sides here since six in the morning, right into Venezuela, left out. Since 2017, an average of 35 to 70,000 Venezuelans have come every day. Eighty percent of legal border traffic between the two countries takes place on the Simón Bolívar Bridge, one of four legal border crossings. The Colombian security forces are casually controlling. Padre Elbert Roja from the Diocese of Cúcuta:

"They leave with the illusion of a new hope, with the illusion of finding security for their lives and for their children. That's the way it is, that has been our daily bread for two years. Sadly, there is no improvement. Quite the contrary: the number of Venezuelans leaving is increasing every day. Some stay in Cúcuta, others go to other Colombian cities or other countries in Latin America. "

In Cúcuta, refugees are provided with food. But there are too many for the border town. (Anne Herrberg)

According to current figures from the "Organization of American States" OAS, 4.6 million Venezuelans have now left their homeland. With 1.6 million, Colombia has taken in the most migrants from the neighboring country on its territory, followed by Peru, the USA and Chile.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans cross the bridge into Cúcuta, Colombia, every day. (Deutschlandradio / Burkhard Birke) Colombia under pressure - flight from Venezuela at record level
Latin America is experiencing the largest movement of refugees in its history. One in seven Venezuelans fled their homeland before the crisis, and soon there will be five million people. The neighboring countries have tightened their entry regulations, only Colombia still lets Venezuelans into the country without papers.

"What Colombia does really well is this policy towards migrants. They have an absolutely admirable policy that tries to give these people opportunities to work and live here. But I think the majority of Colombian society is really fine with it responsible and in part even in solidarity, "says Professor Sabine Kurtenbach from the Giga Institute for Latin American Studies.

One of the makers of this policy is Felipe Muños. He is the government commissioner for the Venezuelan-Colombian border. Felipe Muños speaks of historical responsibility, ethical motivation and the necessary integration:

"President Duque's policy is aimed at supporting Venezuelan migrants and keeping the border open. We pay a high price for this politically and economically. But such is the policy of the government. This is the decision that Colombia made. "

Friendly to Venezuelans, less friendly to former farc guerrillas - Colombia's President Iván Duque has been in office since August 2018. (picture alliance / ZUMA Press / Andres Pantoja)

Coca, gold and pollution

The approval ratings for this policy of the conservative Duque government have fallen from seventy percent a year ago to below fifty today. "Patience is slowly running out," says Felipe Muños. And not only here: Last Thursday, several hundred thousand people across Colombia protested against violence against indigenous peoples and activists, against corruption and against President Duque's labor market and pension reform plans. He responded promptly:

"We hear you. The social dialogue is a central concern of this government. We will deepen it in every area of ​​our society, accelerate our social agenda as well as the fight against corruption."

He won't be believed everywhere in Colombia.

Nice - but dirty: sunrise on the Rio Atrato. (Philipp Lichterbeck, Adveniat)

More than 800 kilometers as the crow flies - by speedboat through the rainforest on the winding Rio Atrato, the main artery of the Chocó province in northwest Colombia. This jungle region is one of the poorest in the country, with mostly Afro-Colombians living in the villages. They live from fishing, wood, sugar cane, but also gold mining and coca cultivation, often a more lucrative business than conventional agriculture.

(Florian Kopp, Misereor) Illegal gold mining in the rainforest - more lucrative than the cocaine trade
They grow incessantly, the "playas" in the Colombian rainforest, the beaches. This is what people call the sand gaps in the jungle that have been created by illegal gold mines. More and more rainforests are falling victim to these gold mines, the government seems powerless, because in the background many people earn a lot.

The band Choc Quib Town comes from Chocó and sings about the "pescao envenenao", the poisoned fish. The tributaries of the murky Atrato River, which flows towards the Caribbean Sea, are already contaminated with mercury by the prospectors, the large river is also already contaminated, the sewage and waste discharged do the rest. Children who bathe here get pustules on their skin.

Growing up in the middle of the jungle - children in the village of Nueva Bellavista in the Colombian province of Chocó. (Isabella Kolar)

Four and a half hours later, upriver. Arrived in the Bojayá administrative district, which is named after the branch of the Rio Atrato of the same name. But the name Bojayá means a lot more in Colombia today.

Worst massacre in over 50 years of civil war

A film that describes the brutal reality in Bojayá in May 2002: Fighting on May 1st, first shots then at dawn on May 2nd: A fierce firefight develops between the left FARC guerrillas and the right paramilitaries. And then at half past ten what makes Bojayá a sad synonym for the worst massacre in over fifty years of civil war with more than 260,000 dead: A bomb flies through the roof of the village church, in which 300 people were seeking protection the previous evening have entrenched. 79 of them perish, including 44 children.

A ruined village with the restored church as a place of remembrance - the site of the Bojayá massacre in 2002 has been completely abandoned since 2007. (Philipp Lichterbeck, Adveniat)

Today - 17 years later - all that remains: a ghost village with a church as a place of remembrance. Because nobody has lived here since 2007.

"We are here in the old village that has now been abandoned because a new village was built by the government. What can still be seen here are the ruins of the old school, the only bank that is within a hundred radius Kilometers. Here, this is the church where the bomb fell back then, it has been restored, next to it the rectory and next to it the ruins of the health post. "

Thoughtful eyes who have already seen a lot - Ulrich Kollwitz has been a priest for forty years and a human rights activist in Quibdo, the capital of Chocó, for twenty years. Only the floor of the simple church has remained the same as it was back then, at the request of the relatives.

"We couldn't leave the church because we were so badly injured. I couldn't get up, I was bleeding all over the place, including my mouth. I was unable to move. And then a young girl came to take her family out and I gave her my two-year-old, she was injured too, but not that bad. I told her to give it to the nurses because they already knew me. I didn't know whether I would get out or not. "

Ulrich Kollwitz, priest in the Quibdó diocese. (Philipp Lichterbeck, Adveniat)

Violence from FARC, paramilitary groups, organized crime

Marcária Allin was traumatized after the massacre she and her two daughters experienced in church. There was no state psychological help for the victims. Only individual sisters from the Church supported them. The FARC only took responsibility for this bloody act four years ago. But even then, the word "perdón" or "pardon" did not come out of their representatives' lips. For Marcária, the culprits are not in the jungle anyway, but in Bogotá:

"The government never heard our voice. Instead of taking us out, the military took the paramilitaries out by giving them our clothes so they could go undetected."

Macaria Allin and her two daughters were victims of the Bojayá massacre in the church in May 2002. (Philipp Lichterbeck, Adveniat)

Long forgotten times? Not at all. The paramilitaries have just shot a campesino, a farmer, not far from here because they mistakenly believed him to be a guerrilla. More and more paramilitaries and criminal groups are marching into the areas of the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. To where the FARC has left and the state has not filled the resulting void. The unresolved historical conflict in Colombia is and will remain the conflict over the fair distribution of land and the extreme inequality between urban and rural areas, says political scientist Sabine Kurtenbach from the Giga Institute:

"The government - Santos too - they knew that this day would come when the FARC are concentrated in certain zones. And that there was not only the FARC as a violent actor, but also paramilitaries, neo-paramilitaries, organized crime, ELN. Then I just have to show presence in the areas with the state forces. "

(AFP / Raul Arboleda) Colombia under President Duque - peace process in danger
Since President Ivan Duque took office, the peace process in Colombia has come under increasing threat. Human rights activists are murdered almost daily and the government has still failed to fulfill many of its promises to the former guerrilla, the FARC.

Since the peace treaty of December 2016, those who fight for change and reform as activists and leaders of social movements have been risking their lives. The number of murders is currently increasing dramatically. The local communities have to organize themselves very well in order to resist, says Padre Ulrich Kollwitz.

"We also have a few cases here. For example, an Indian leader was shot dead by the military on the street. A woman, in a district, the leader of the" Action communales ", citizens' initiative, that is, self-government of the district, she was also shot, because she resisted the payment of protection money to a gang. "

Many feel betrayed by the president

Former FARC fighter Ivan Marquez (AFP / HO / Youtube)

But part of the whole truth is that over a hundred former FARC guerrilla fighters were also killed in this series of murders. This made it even more difficult for the ex-guerrillas among them who wanted to stay on the civil path of the peace treaty. Under the leadership of FARC leader Iván Márquez, former rebels announced their return to armed struggle in front of the cameras on August 29 - their weapons at the ready. An action that made waves in the media around the world:

The return "to guerrilla warfare" is the "answer to the state's betrayal of the Havana Agreement," explains FARC guerrilla Marquez his decision and that of 2,000 fellow campaigners. Yet it was Marquez himself who played a major role in negotiating the peace treaty in Cuba's capital. A farce and no peace - this is how many rebels feel, who three years later feel betrayed by President Duque's government.

(Deutschlandradio / Burkhard Birke) Colombia - Former FARC fighters practice a life in peace
The armed struggle in Colombia lasted half a century. Many former fighters find it difficult to shake off everyday life in the rebel camps, says Brigitta von Messling from the Berlin Center for International Peace Operations.

And they are currently not the only ones in Colombia who accuse him of having no interest in implementing the peace treaty, and even of boycotting it. The newly declared FARC fighters want the conflict back and thus achieve the social changes that the South American country so desperately needs. With a prospect of success?

"The Colombian society dealt with it super well. So not even the government said that this was the end of it for us, but everyone said: no, no, let's stand together now, we don't want that. Although the problem is "You are absolutely right in some arguments. The government did not deliver many things that it promised."

Citizens' anger against the incompetent state

The lack of will to reform fuels dissatisfaction in a country where the gap between rich and poor seems to be cemented.

Funeral service for those killed in Bogotá (AFP / Raul Arboleda)

The anger at the incompetent state, which is abandoning its citizens, can be heard the next day a hundred kilometers further north of Bojayá, in Quibdo, a city of 120,000 with an average of 130 murders a year. Hundreds of protesters in white T-shirts and shirts march through the city center with posters and photos on this sunny Wednesday morning, calling for "health, education and work."

"We want to overcome the ongoing violence," the loudspeakers boom. "The children are not for war". You speak from the heart of Marcária Allin, who survived the Bojayá massacre: because seventeen years later she is afraid again, although she looks composed on the outside.

"We are alarmed and we ask God that nothing happens again. We are practically at the same level as we were seventeen years ago: we live in fear and terror. We do not know whether we can sleep or not. And we do not think so out, those are facts. They just murdered a compañero. The truth is: it hasn't changed much. The government says nothing is happening here, but we who live here know exactly what is happening. "

"Remnants of the FARC would like the war again"

"It is absurd to work against peace" - 19 year old Valentina Figerua and her parents in Bogotá. (Isabella Kolar)

For Valentina Figerua, the war is far away - now as it was then. And yet it is her topic this afternoon. The nineteen-year-old student is in Bogotá, Colombia's capital, in front of the monument to Doris Salcedo: the Colombian artist melted down 8,000 FARC rifles, which were hammered together to form floor slabs for this memorial called "Fragmentos".A memorial for the civil war - and at the same time a metaphor for the fact that war and hatred can be overcome. Valentina is visibly impressed.

(Deutschlandradio / Juan Fernando Castro) Colombia - Melting hatred with the FARC weapons
Weapons to floor slabs: The Colombian artist Doris Salcedo had 8,000 FARC rifles melted down. Slabs were hammered out of this for a new memorial in Bogotá. It is a memorial for the civil war - and at the same time a metaphor for the fact that war and hatred can be overcome.

"There are still a lot of guerrillas and there are still remnants of the FARC. And they would like to have the war again because it is advantageous for them. And it is indeed difficult to integrate into society if you were a guerrilla . There are many obstacles for the ex-guerrillas to find work and to educate themselves. Among them there are many who cannot read or write but only handle weapons. So it is difficult for them and for us. We don't know how we can help them and we lack empathy. "

More empathy, more forgiveness, less war - a clear message for a country that has experienced civil war and left it behind for over fifty years. And for the past three years, at least a minimum of peace has been preserved - despite all predictions.

The research for the trip to Colombia was supported by Adveniat, the Latin America Aid Organization for Catholics in Germany.