© Presidency of Colombia via The New York Times
For most Colombians, the civil war that has been waging in our nation for the past 50 years is an abstract concept. It is fought in remote areas of the countryside, while around 75% of Colombians live in urban areas. The perception is that as long as you stay within city limits, you won’t be subject to violence from guerrilla forces. The danger and insecurity most Colombians experience come from urban organized crime, not uniformed, armed combatants.
From 1999 to 2008, Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay all elected leftist and center-left presidents, a chain of events known as the “pink tide.” During this period, in 2002, I ran for the Colombian presidency under a center-left banner to fight corruption and social injustice. While I was campaigning in a zone declared to be secured by the Colombian army, I was kidnapped by the nation’s Marxist guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Abduction was an industry for the rebels, and I represented everything they hated: I was a politician, and they believed that all politicians were corrupt. My name was linked to the oligarchy, I was educated, and I could speak foreign languages: I was therefore someone to be feared and tamed. I was a dual French-Colombian citizen running for president, thus suspected of serving foreign interest, and I was a woman, therefore manipulative and difficult. They held me for six and a half years.
Beyond tearing us away from our normal lives and holding us in the jungle, the guerrillas used a regime of deprivation on me and my fellow hostages, hoping to break our will. They subjected us to myriad forms of abuse, including brutal violence, extreme pain, and humiliation and other forms of psychological torture, using their ideology to justify their behavior.
My battle during those six and a half years was to survive. I didn’t develop Stockholm syndrome: The way they treated me was so extreme that I could not forget that I was the enemy. I attempted to escape many times, and if I were still trapped in that jungle today, I would continue plotting to break free.
During my years in captivity, Colombia’s political landscape changed dramatically from the one I had known. The nation took a political turn at odds with the leftist surge shaping the region and elected a conservative leader determined to wage war and eradicate communist subversion.
By the time I was released in 2008, and despite the government’s undeniable military achievements, the country was still moored by FARC’s presence and its treacherous drug trade. I rejoined my family and began the long process of rebuilding
Eight years later, as communist Cuba was normalizing diplomatic relations with the United States, the FARC — the oldest leftist guerrilla group remaining on the continent — appeared to finally begin laying down its weapons and severing its ties with the drug trade. In August 2016, the FARC reached a peace agreement with the Colombian government as a result of painstaking negotiations. Shockingly, however, the Colombian people rejected the referendum on the deal several weeks later.
How to explain this vote? Is it because human beings by their very nature tend to protect their identity through the hatred of other groups? I don’t want to believe that. We have to be better. When President Juan Manuel Santos, who led the negotiations, was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, the international community was signaling to all Colombians their responsibility to find peace.
It was also a message to the FARC, who needed to show real contrition in order to demonstrate to Colombians the authenticity of their commitment to the agreement. The FARC is no Nelson Mandela, and in September, Colombians wanted to see its members in jail, not in office. The FARC had stated they would not accept even a day in jail, though they asked for forgiveness for some particular cases of kidnapping and murder, and mentioned this in general terms when their leader, Rodrigo Londoño, sat down with Santos to sign the peace agreement in Cartagena days before the referendum. Colombians felt that was too little, too late. Now that the referendum has failed, FARC leaders have to accept higher levels of accountability, which means agreeing to longer jail term sentences as part of a new deal.
The Nobel Committee’s message was also to the “No” movement, including former President Álvaro Uribe, who can no longer bluntly dismiss any peace agreement. Had the peace referendum succeeded, it would have done so by a very narrow margin, thus dividing the country in half — much like the recent Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom — but with the added risk of rekindling violence.
Unlike Brexit, though, the Colombian referendum had no final outcome: By declining this particular agreement, Colombians opened the door for a new deal. Santos has thus turned the rejection of the referendum into an opportunity to unite the country by forcing the agreement’s strongest adversaries to sit at the negotiation table. No one dares to admit a preference for war anymore.
Colombians therefore have to cling to their resolve to find peace. Our hope has to be placed not in a short-term political outcome, but in the success of the long-term process that has just begun. We must evolve into a people equipped to live in a peaceful society.
The signed agreement between Santos and the FARC is the cornerstone upon which Colombians will be able to build. In this process, we cannot forget the lessons of our past. Colombians have a long history of secret maneuverings, with dark forces sabotaging peace agreements from within. In previous peace attempts, selective genocide against opposition leaders ruined our chances.
As we move forward together, we need to recognize that we all come from different starting points. There is a generation gap, where young Colombians are determined to free themselves from the hatred of their forefathers. There is a regional gap too: People in the countryside voted for the referendum; people in the cities voted against.
Constructing peace means finding the right balance in our demands. The new deal needs to reflect the concerns of those who have been skeptical and voted no in the referendum, without surrendering to the veto of those who are benefiting from the war.
It also involves hard choices by the war’s victims, who must give up on vengeance and embrace the gift of reconciliation as the token of a better future. I have experienced our war firsthand; I personally know how challenging this is. I too have been tempted to focus solely on my grief, and fuel myself with acrimony against my captors for the anguish my children endured as they grew up without their mother, for the death of my father after a heart failure caused by my capture, and for the painful memories seared in my brain that are still haunting me in my daily life. But I have to trust that we are bringing to the table something much bigger than our own pain: a guarantee that our children will not suffer what we did.
When we succeed, the end of this half-century-long battle will illuminate the path forward for other war-torn nations such as Iraq, Syria and Israel. But until we divest ourselves of our resentments and furies, we will remain in captivity.
Ingrid Betancourt is a Colombian politician, and an anti-corruption and human rights activist. She is the author of “Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle.” She has received multiple international awards, including the Légion d’Honneur and the 2008 Concord Prince of Asturias Award.
© 2016 Ingrid Betancourt
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate