It might seem odd to send messages of love to a group that has terrorised your country for the last 50 years, but that's exactly what one organisation in Colombia is doing to former FARC fighters (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), after an historic peace deal between the group and the country's government was finally ratified in November 2016.
It took tough negotiations to end the bloody 52-year-long conflict that resulted in the deaths of more than 220,000 people, with almost 8 million people displaced. For FARC combatants who have known nothing but war, putting down their guns and re-entering society will not be an easy task. Cartas por la Reconciliación ("Letters of reconciliation") is trying to make the reintegration process easier, by inviting the public to send letters of compassion and welcome to combatants who have put down their arms.
Three Colombians, Leonardo Párraga, Cristian Palacios, and Franz Rodriguez began Cartas por la Reconciliación after hearing a speech by Nobel Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Bogota in February 2017. In his speech, Satyarthi suggested that instead of sending love letters or Valentine’s cards to our loved ones on Valentine’s Day, letters should be sent to refugees – people who need compassion more than anyone. This idea stuck with the team, and so they set about trying to work out how to send letters to former FARC fighters.
The project is based out of Cali, a town in the west of the country, where they began by going to university campuses and public parks, and stopping people in the streets with writing materials and asking them to pen a letter. With time, the project grew and as they became more well-known they developed a network of people across the country who have brought the idea to their local area.
Daniela Ruge is a university student, and works with Cartas Por La Reconciliación.
“We want to give them a second chance”
Everyone needs to help in the reconciliation process. The FARC are victims too. We know that they have made mistakes but I think it is important that we let them know that we want to give them a second chance.
It can be very emotional. When [former FARC fighters] receive a letter, they tell us things like, ‘I’ve never had a letter before, I never thought that I would receive a letter.’ A 13-year-old wrote a letter saying that her father had been killed by the FARC, but that she now forgave them, and she had peace in her heart. Most people write letters welcoming FARC fighters back to society, that they understand that it is difficult to come back, and that although it will be a hard thing to do they will be welcomed with open arms.
A teacher from our university helped us to get permission to go to the transition zones [known as “zonas veredales de transición y normalización”] – where guerrilla fighters go to disarm and receive help from the state with reintegrating into society], and now it is easier for us to go there because they know us. It’s not just about handing over the letters – we also stay and spend time with them. Some of them don’t really know how to read or write, so we are also there to help them with that.
"My eyes are open to what life is like for guerrilla fighters," says this poster, taken from the Cartas por la Reconciliacion Facebook page.
“People threaten us; they say that the FARC are terrorists”
It was hard for me because they seemed like such normal, humble people. I couldn’t imagine them fighting. Listening to their stories it is hard to hear what their lives were like and why they became fighters. It is difficult for them because they are very scared [of coming back into society].
We have only gone to the zones twice but we have delivered approximately 1,000 letters. The fighters often respond to the letters — we can’t send the responses because we don’t know who wrote the initial letter. Instead, we post the responses online.
"The guerrilla fighter who reads this letter breathes air full of peace." From the Cartas Facebook page.
“We'll keep going until every ex-FARC member has received a letter”
People do get very angry [about the project]: they threaten us, they say that the FARC are terrorists and drug-traffickers. They have a lot of hate in their heart and their minds are really closed. Older people find it harder to forget the violence. It’s easier to work with young people.
We want to keep going with this until every single ex-FARC member has received a letter, so they all know that there are people there supporting them.
"Them and us, we have something in common... Our humanity." Taken from the Cartas Facebook page.