Peace has been reached in Colombia. Amid the relief is apprehension | Juan Gabriel Vasquez

The long cruel conflict between the state and Farc ruined millions of lives. But now, finally, we are on the verge of true reconciliation

I write this from a very strange place: a country at peace. As of today, the conflict between the Colombian state and the Farc guerrillas, which has produced more than 6 million victims – counting the dead, the wounded and that sad euphemism, the displaced population – has officially ended. It is – it was – the oldest conflict of its kind in the world: it officially began in 1964, which means several generations, including my own, have never known a life in which Colombians were not killing each other.

It has also proved to be one of the cruellest. Over the years it has been fuelled by drug money, terrorism, and kidnappings; also, by state-sponsored murders of civilians and, in the darkest years, by the appearance of rightwing paramilitaries who threatened, persecuted and killed anyone leaning too much to the left and weren’t averse to using chainsaws and cremating ovens to do so. The dynamics of war bring out the worst in us; the dynamics of a long war corrode fundamental notions of humanity to such a point that its certainties – its predictable risks, its clear enemies, its victims falling always somewhere else – might come to seem preferable to the uncertainty of peace.

This is perhaps the most difficult challenge we face today. War is well-known ground: you grow used to its accidents, you make little adjustments, you manage to carry on; peace, on the other hand, may seem too much like uncharted territory, with too many Here Be Dragons signs posted on the blank map. The agreements signed yesterday will require major readjustment of the ideas we have about ourselves, both as individuals and as a nation, and not everyone is up to the task.

Readers familiar with the Irish conflict may recognise the main points of contention: the agreements will allow guerrilla members to participate in politics, a thought that many Colombians find distasteful; they will also establish a special justice system, allowing perpetrators of violence to avoid jail – a concession that many regard as a form of impunity. It is no such thing: in exchange for a full confession of crimes committed and material reparation of damages, guerrilla members will receive amnesty – except in the case of international crimes, which will result in what the text of the agreements has called “effective restrictions of freedom”. All this sounds hopelessly technical; in fact, colossal human issues are at stake, because a complete understanding of the minutiae will be essential when the time comes for the Colombian people to validate these agreements. The risky mechanism will be a referendum; and we all know, having witnessed the Brexit fiasco, how unstable that little concoction can be.

Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos addresses the public after delivering the deal to Congress.
Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos addresses the public after delivering the deal to Congress. Photograph: Felipe Caicedo/AP

Some weeks ago, while the public was trying to pick its way through the lies and misinformation coming from the enemies of the peace process, I visited Humberto de la Calle, leader of the government’s negotiating team. His appointment was an inspired decision on the part of President Santos: de la Calle is a wise and honest man, qualities that are rare and even dangerous in Colombian politics. I wanted to understand the impending agreements, and to convey my findings to Colombian readers in every way I could; but as soon as we sat down to talk, I sensed that he would have preferred to spend that time discussing novels and poems. We talked for two long hours about the facts and figures involved in this life-changing moment, but his face brightened when I asked him what could we, the novelists and writers, contribute to the peace effort.

“These negotiations are also about stories,” I told him. “There is a different story about these last 50 years depending on who tells it. These 50 years of war are one story if told by the right and another if told by the left. It’s one story if told by a peasant and a very different one if told by a city-dweller. Perhaps what should be negotiated is a common story in which we all can recognise ourselves.”

He was grateful to hear this. Kindly, almost carefully, he countered: “No. There’s not one common story.” He then recalled a well-known fable about a group of blind men who, after gathering round to touch an elephant, are asked to describe it. One says an elephant is made of ivory; another one says it is a long tube of skin. “The reason behind the truth commission we have created,” said De la Calle, “is not to dictate one version of the truth, but to learn to live with different truths. A final agreement is not a military question. It’s about learning to live with more than one truth at a time.”

Perhaps now that peace is here, the learning process can finally begin.


Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The GuardianTramp

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