For Some, Yellow Butterflies Symbolise Hope in the Midst of Colombia’s Uncertainty

Yellow butterflies covered every wall in the office of one of our partner organisations in Colombia.

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The first butterfly was cut out and hung on a wall immediately following the signing of the peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on 26 September 2016 in Cartagena on the northern coast of the country.

In their speeches on this momentous occasion, both President Juan Manuel Santos and Timochenco, the commander and Chief of the FARC, referred to the yellow butterflies from celebrated Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ famous novel ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’: Gabriel Garcia Marquez is remembered for his love of yellow butterflies and flowers, which signify that nothing bad will happen.

“The war is over, we are starting to build peace” – Timochenko, Commander and Chief of the FARC

During his speech, Timochenko, stated, “war is over, we are starting to build peace’’ followed by a reference to a character in the novel, Mauricio Babilonia, who is constantly followed by yellow butterflies wherever he goes, as a symbol of infinite love and hope. Ivan Marquez, the FARC’s lead negotiator stated at a national FARC conference, “Tell Mauricio Babilonia he can release the yellow butterflies,” as a direct quote from the novel.

An Unexpected Outcome

These butterflies were a clear example of the hopeful expectancy that surrounded me in Bogota. Everyone was discussing what the peace agreement would mean for the country, especially for the regions most affected by the 52 year long conflict, especially the more rural areas of Colombia.

During the 53 years of internal conflict, hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost. All actors during the conflict have been responsible for major human rights violations; armed actors have also been responsible for a wide range of violations of religious freedom as hundreds of religious leaders have been the victims of targeted assassinations since 2000 and many have received threats, including death threats, by neo-paramilitary groups and guerrillas. Many churches have faced extortion from armed groups or have been forcibly closed.

However, at this point in time, the national plebiscite which was due to be held on 2 October 2016 had not yet taken place and was the final step required to bring the peace agreement into force.

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Enforced Disappearance: No Answers, No Accountability

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Widows Donatilda and Adalgiza

 

Ten years ago I sat in a small, hot room in Trujillo, Peru with a colleague and three women each clutching a folder. They held the folders as if they contained a fortune, and we leaned forward as one by one they carefully opened their folder to show us the precious contents. There were a few old photographs and scores of documents peppered with government stamps. When they finished, each woman closed her folder, looked at us, and said “I still don’t know where he is.”

The three women were talking about their husbands, victims of enforced disappearance. Some twenty years earlier the police had taken their husbands somewhere, making assurances to their young wives that they just needed to ask them a few questions and they’d soon be home. Days, then weeks, then years went by and their husbands did not return. The women went from police station to police station, then to the prisons, the hospitals and morgues but no one could tell them where they went, or rather, where they had been taken.

As we listened to them, I watched the way they treated the folders, holding them close to their chests, caressing the documents and photos as they showed them to us. I realised why the folders were so precious t them. It was because this was all they had left of their husbands. Without them, it was as if they had never existed at all.

Torturous Hope

Enforced disappearance is one of the cruellest human rights crimes.

There is the crime against the primary victim – who has disappeared – and this is compounded by the crime committed against their families and loved ones who endure years and even decades of wondering what has happened to them.

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The Path to Lasting Peace in Colombia Lies in Learning the Lessons of the Past

“Maybe you who came from the cities to see us can tell us, where did mass displacement come from? Where did this Clan Úsuga come from? Where did any of these things come from? Can you tell us? We do not know.”

The Protestant pastor held his Bible tightly to his chest as he stood and said these words. He and his wife had been forcibly displaced along with a large group from their church, forced to flee their rural village to the relative safety of an urban centre, after receiving threats from Clan Úsuga, a neo-paramilitary group also known as the Urabeños, one of the largest and most powerful violent criminal groups in Colombia.

We were at a meeting with about 15 church leaders who had travelled from across the region which was infested with left-wing guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – Army of the People (FARC-EP) and National Liberation Army (ELN), as well the Urabeños and other neo-paramilitary groups. They all had similar stories to share.  Most, like the pastor who asked these questions, were humble people from the countryside who had dedicated themselves to subsistence farming and their ministry. They are far, far away from the centres of power in Colombia both in terms of geographic distance and influence. Yet, as he expressed, they and the people in their communities are the ones who live and cope daily with the consequences of the decisions and agreements brokered in those centres.

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