Peace in the Street and the Time of Yellow Butterflies

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The Justapaz office is adorned with yellow butterflies. On cubicle dividers, windows, walls and doors, they were the first thing I noticed when I walked inside this week, along with quote from the ever famous Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Tell Mauricio Babilonia to let loose the yellow butterflies in Macondo; the war is over.” My heart sank. The quote had circulated on social media the month before the plebiscite as a sign of hope and the butterflies as a proclamation that peace had come to Colombia. I assumed that my colleagues had decorated the the office as a celebration of the peace accords signing, before the plebiscite, and seeing them reminded me of all the crushed hope when the No vote won, by the narrowest of margins, in the midst of voter abstention.

I came back to mourn with my friends and support them as they once again picked up the pieces. People kept on reminding me of the resilience of Colombians; moving on from tragedy is what they do best. Just for once, I thought, I would like them to have a day when nobody has to be resilient or put things back together, a day to simply rest in a new Colombia before getting back to work.

This week has not turned out to be what I imagined. Instead, fours hours after landing on Sunday morning, I was at the Plaza de Bolivar for an ecumenical service for peace as a response to the plebiscite and the role of many evangelical communities in promoting the no vote.

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#Ocupaz

There, I had my first glimpse of the small collections of tents. Each tent is named in honour of a community that has been severely impacted by the conflict and the occupants are there to do exactly that: under #ocupaz, a mixed group of mainly young students, have vowed to maintain the tent camp until a peace accord is reached. 

As we sang songs of peace, we widened the circle to include the tents. Julian, a student from the camp, read the text about a time for everything from Ecclesiastes and shared:

The fact that we are here, united in the same spirit, around the same idea, makes references to this historic transition that we are living as Colombians, as citizens… that those of us who said yes continue saying to the political class that is is time to change hate into hope, that we are tired of their way of leading and that it is our time to be those who act for a new time of peace here in Colombia, not waiting for something to fall from the sky. It is time for all of us…to unite ourselves.

There we stood, in the centre of traditional power: the Catholic church, the Congress, the Mayoral Office and the Court of Justice, yet surrounded by crosses with the names of victims and breaking bread in the shape of PAZ  (peace), to remember that true peace means social justice, and that those most impacted by conflict must be in the centre of all action, accords and power.

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Yes, voting matters. Many call Colombian the longest running democracy in Latin America. But when traditionally votes are bought, political parties provides transportation to voting stations, manipulation reigns, and the question is rarely one of conscience, but rather one of immediate benefit, it is first of all remarkable the number of people that did vote yes in the areas most impacted by conflict, where there is little trust in political processes, and secondly, important to understand the ways that people are currently expressing democracy.

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Positive change has always been achieved throughout persistent work from the grassroots to achieve political will. Especially in cases like Mampujan’s court order, the Victim’s Law, or the rights of conscientious objectors, where legislation is supposedly already in place to implement specific measures,  it has only been due to the advocacy of victims and communities to demand compliance, often at great personal cost, that the state has granted rights.

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On October 12, we commemorate the heroic resistance of our ancestors. That is why today, we invite all Colombians to say yes to peace.

I have witnessed this acting out of grassroots power on a large scale this week, as Colombians across the country, not only in Bogota, are in the streets to demand a signed peace accord. It was an honour to photograph the March of the Flowers on Wednesday, as thousands of Bogotanos lined the street to hand out white flowers and chant “You are not alone,” to Indigenous and victims’s groups as they walked down the Septima.

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Paz a La Calle General Assembly

These mobilizations are remarkable if only for the inclusion and unity in which people in the streets are demanding and discussing.  Proceses and assemblies are difficult, but I am impressed by how these movements are demanding the need to keep those most impacted by the conflict at the centre of whatever new agreement or process is reached and to not allow those rights and voices to be co-opted by the elites, either political or by the dominant social movement hierarchies. Listening to thousands of people in  the Plaza of Bolivar cheer wildly for student organizers and Indigenous groups, without mentioning organizational names or parties is astounding in a culture where hierarchy reigns.

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There are enormous challenges up ahead. Post-vote tension, division and mistrust are palpable, including within the offices of social organizations. There are valid fears and precedents that political elites will continue on as they always have, making decisions that benefit only themselves. The country can easily slide back into full blown armed conflict with the FARC. Lives are at stake. Even with a definitive accord, there will remain other armed groups and the multiple challenges of implementation. Jorge Montes is still in jail.

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One of the greatest powers of non-violent direct action, however, is its capacity to change the way people see each other.  When you go out in the street, it is impossible to remain the same.  As this article in Pacifista reads:

To march is a way to apply pressure for peace, but it is also a marvellous space of encounter. It is a way to get away from the automatized militarization of Facebook or Twitter, where instead of the vanity of likes or re-tweets, we meet each other with smiles and greetings.To march is less screens and more human beings. It is finding ourselves within the differences.I believe that is why we march: to encounter that broadened us that we have not had because of the conflict. It is a peek at who we can be. 

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Sorry for failing you.

I saw this after the Mampuján and the Montaña marches. On Wednesday, I witnessed the beauty of the vulnerability of people who are choosing to trust each other enough to hand out flowers in the street and to ask for forgiveness. Instead of demanding that the victims offer models of reconciliation, us urban middle class folks may be learning (and I include myself), that it is our responsibility to apologize for our ignorance and actions which contributed to violence and hatred and do everything we can to also be people of peace.

Nonviolence is also powerful because it is an effective tool to affect political change. Santos extended the bilateral ceasefire until December 31, the day after the march and a meeting with the students.

Everything can, however, still turn out very badly and the peace accord crisis continues.

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Yet if ordinary Colombians can write letters welcoming and encouraging the FARC in the midst of their current limbo between demobilization and self-protection, without being afraid of being stigmatized as terrorists, it is my responsibility to have hope and to say yes. If 5 thousand people can march in Sincelejo for peace, the site of massive arrivals of displaced people in the early 2000s because of fighting between the FARC and paramilitary-government forces, my job is to do what I have always been told to do: follow the lead of the local community and be a person who believes and acts that peace is possible.

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Angelica, my Justapaz colleague, told me on Friday that some of the office staff had actually put up the butterflies a couple days after the vote results were in, turning them into an even more powerful sign and gesture of hope and action in the midst of mourning. When everything seems lost, look for the butterflies. It turns out they are everywhere: camping in the plaza, breaking bread together, and demanding peace in the streets.

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