Months after a peace accord was signed between the government and the country’s largest rebel group, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partners in Colombia are walking with people affected by more than 50 years of violence.
At the end of 2016, the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) guerrillas negotiated a deal in which the rebels agreed to leave their camps and relocate to a number of sites within the country. From there, the groups will disarm and begin new lives as civilians. Fighters not directly involved in war crimes will not face prison time.
Although FARC-EP is demobilizing, there are many other illegal armed groups in the country, and, according to Amy Eanes, the advocacy support specialist for MCC in Colombia, “there’s still a long journey toward peace.” She says that some of these groups are becoming more active in order to assert dominance and claim territory once occupied by the FARC-EP.
This is especially true in rural areas like the Chocó region, where MCC partners with the Mennonite Brethren conference. A member of one of the churches in the area says another guerrilla group is fighting the Gaitanista Self Defence Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary group that normally occupies the area, and it’s very dangerous there now. Armed conflict between the two groups broke out in February, months after the peace accord was signed by FARC-EP.
“It sounded tremendous, like thunder, bullets being shot everywhere,” a female church member recalls. In one part of the town, the guerrilla group threatened to shoot civilians if they didn’t open their doors, because the guerrilla fighters believed members of the paramilitary group were hiding there.
“Even though you know that God says that wars will come, and in the midst of all these things God will protect you, it was something so terrible, because it’s one thing to talk about it, and it’s another thing to be there while it’s happening. To feel the shootout, to hear the sounds like something terrible was happening. I just said, ‘Lord have mercy on us and watch over us,’ but we thought this was going to be the end.”
The defence force left for a time but came back to set up checkpoints throughout the community. “My heart dropped because I didn’t expect to see them again so soon because the [guerrilla] group is still pursuing them,” she says, worrying that this may stir tensions between the two groups.
The woman has little faith the peace accord will make a difference in her community or other rural areas in Colombia. “In reality, the hope we have is from God,” she says.
MCC works with a number of MB and Mennonite churches and organizations in Colombia who have been actors for peace in the country for many years. Eanes says, “The churches are figuring out what this post-accord period will look like for them, and I think it’s important to walk alongside these partners,” she says.
In April, MCC embarked on a three-year peace education project with the Mennonite Brethren Regional Council of Chocó to promote an understanding of a culture of peace and how to encourage peacebuilding among youth and young adults in the region and beyond.
MCC’s partners in the country also do political advocacy and help Colombians who flee the country following death threats. There are currently about 360,000 refugees, mostly living in Ecuador and Venezuela.