Over more than 50 years, civil war in colombia has killed an estimated 220,000 people, and displaced as many as 8 million. Last September, after six years of talks, the Colombian government finally signed a peace accord with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—only to see citizens narrowly reject it in a shocking October referendum result. Days later, President Juan Manuel Santos, a former fellow at the Fletcher School, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the suddenly ailing agreement. 

Calling the Nobel a “gift from heaven,” Santos said it buoyed his efforts to salvage the deal and end the bloodshed. He quickly worked to strike a balance between granting amnesty to some former fighters and holding accountable those who committed war crimes. Under the revised accord, the FARC, which launched its guerrilla war in 1964, would relaunch as a political party and its estimated 7,000 fighters would disarm under United Nations supervision. 

This time, Santos bypassed the popular vote; he signed the agreement in November and the country’s Congress swiftly approved it. The challenge now is getting the plan to work.

Kimberly Theidon

Kimberly Theidon in her home. Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Since 2005, Kimberly Theidon, the Henry J. Leir Professor of International Humanitarian Studies at Fletcher, has consulted with the government of Colombia on transitional justice and reconciliation, and is now focusing on the mass demobilization and reintegration of former FARC fighters. She previously investigated similar issues in Peru, writing the book Intimate Enemies to chronicle the experiences of ordinary Peruvians working toward reconciliation after 20 years of armed conflict in their country.  We spoke with Theidon about whether Colombians who lost loved ones in the civil war will accept former rebels in their neighborhoods and their legislature.

I’ve had to learn, even if it doesn’t sit well with me, at times there have to be some trade-offs. Because if you think in absolutes, that’s the kind of polarization that frequently keeps wars going.

FLETCHER MAGAZINE: In late September 2016, it seemed the years of negotiations were over. Polls predicted that the public would approve peace accords by a 2 to 1 margin. What happened?

KIMBERLY THEIDON: Some voters opposed the accord’s provision of stipends, support and training to help former fighters transition into civilian life. These opponents framed the provision as a form of rewarding—rather than punishing—individuals for their acts of violence. Opponents also criticized how the accord made rank-and-file FARC fighters eligible for amnesty, provided they were not involved in war crimes or crimes against humanity. And some voters opposed how the agreement promoted the equality and participation of women and LGBTI groups.

The geographic distribution of the referendum votes suggests that people in regions that experienced high rates of violence voted in favor of the peace accords. The “no” vote revealed the deep gap that exists between certain urban centers—whose inhabitants see the war as the distant past and currently a subject for television series—and people in regions of the country in which the living legacies of war are a part of daily life. In those rural areas, the peace accords were embraced not for their perfection, but for their promise. 

What do you think of the revised accord?

I am guardedly optimistic. I was part of a U.N. Expert Mission on Gender and Transitional Justice in February, and the challenges are multiple. Moving from a complex peace accord to implementation will require great resources and considerable political will. 

This isn’t the first time that Colombia has tried to end the war with FARC. In the 1980s, FARC agreed to a cease-fire and created a political party, only to have 3,000 of its members assassinated by paramilitaries. How can Colombia better protect former combatants this time? 

There’s a lot of bad faith on all sides around what’s going to happen next. The 1984 assassinations hovered over all of the negotiations. One of the sticking points was, where will the former combatants be concentrated? How will they be kept safe? How will those around them be kept safe? The idea is that they will be in concentration zones, with some forces guarding on the periphery to make sure that they have actually put down their weapons and that they are being kept safe. The U.N. will be in for a year at least to make sure that people are living up to the accords. 

There’s much more stigmatizing of female former combatants than there is of men: ‘They’re bad women. They abandoned their families.’ There needs to be a scripting of new gender roles and expectations.

How can the former fighters reintegrate into communities and rebuild their lives, without being pulled into drug trafficking or other criminal enterprises?

What do you offer that can begin to compare with the amount of money people can make in an illicit economy? You can’t win on those terms, so you have to find something that you gain by setting down your weapons. 

The high-level commanders who helped negotiate the agreement got some benefits for themselves, such as reduced jail time. Frequently concessions will be made to bring the most powerful to the table. 

The foot soldiers may be eager to leave the fighting behind, but drug traffickers are always trying to recruit them. So you need to be able to say, “We will ensure that you don’t get killed,” and then, “We’ll make sure you make enough money to support you and your family in a dignified way.” That’s pretty powerful.

What about the midlevel commanders who won’t be happy with $200 a month?

They are your spoilers. They’ve got the entourage; they’ve got the big SUV with the tinted windows and the guys in the back with the guns. They’ve had a certain lifestyle that they may not be so eager to give up. These guys, in a lot of people’s eyes, don’t just get to come back. In some instances, quite frankly, there may be some jail time handed down to some of them.

How do poor Colombians react to the government helping former fighters? 

If all the government seems to be doing is doling out something to individual combatants each month while all the other poor people in the neighborhood look on, forget it. It’s socially toxic. How many times have we heard, “Oh, I’d be doing better if I’d killed somebody. That’s what I should have done, and the government would have given me some money, too”? 

There has to be security for the combatants, and there has to be security for the people with whom they’re going to be living as civilians again. And then perhaps a communal development project, so that everyone says, “OK, we’re going to give this a try, because it benefits all of us.” 

Would a process of apologizing help?

I never underestimate the power of people having to apologize and to earn the trust and respect of others. I saw that a lot in Peru in local communities with former guerrilla members. They would apologize, promise they wouldn’t do it again, do some kind of work for the good of the entire community—repair some of the damage they’ve done. 

Justice isn’t just jail time. That’s a really slender little piece of it. We need to look at a broader repertoire of justice. It may include apologies. It may be working in rebuilding houses that you are considered to have burned, working on behalf of the widows, doing some kind of reparation. 

Getting to that broader sense of what satisfies people’s sense of justice is very important. 

What do you think of how the accord grants amnesty to combatants except those who committed the worst atrocities, such as massacres, rape and torture?

If we look at the Peace and Justice Law that was applied to the paramilitaries in Colombia—where if you confessed, you got a reduced sentence, eight years maximum—was that enough time to serve in prison if you killed 2,000 people? No. Did some of those paramilitaries confess and were bodies found in mass graves and identified? Yes. So what is that equation of wanting to get truth and some kind of justice for people? 

I hate to sound so crassly pragmatic, but what do you do to get the perpetrators to open their mouths and say anything? The reduced prison sentences, they’re not enough. But what else are you going to do with them? Say, “You’re going to go to jail for the rest of your life”? That’s not much of an incentive structure. 

I thought more in terms of absolutes early on. I’ve had to learn, even if it doesn’t sit well with me, at times there have to be some trade-offs. Because if you think in absolutes, that’s the kind of polarization that frequently keeps wars going. 

In Rwanda, people who committed atrocities were offered forgiveness by survivors. Could that work in Colombia? 

I have to make a distinction between forgiveness and reconciling. Huge distinction. People told me in Peru, “We do not have to forgive them, and nobody can make me forgive them. But we can live reconciled to the extent that it’s coexistence and we stop harming one another.” I hear that now in Colombia.

You cannot mandate that anyone feel forgiving. The burden of hatred is such that some people will want to let go of it if they possibly can. That is a choice people make. But I think we have no right to make survivors feel like they bear the burden of forgiving folks for whom they may have tremendous resentment and whom they may hold responsible for their greatest losses. 

Has that been done wrong elsewhere?

Yes. The South African Commission set up this equation: revealing is healing, truth equals reconciliation, more truth equals more reconciliation. And many would say they skipped over the justice component. It was a very heavy-handed use of a theological understanding of reconciliation. We have to ask ourselves, is it really fair to place the burden of forgiving on the shoulders of survivors who may have seen no form of justice whatsoever for their losses? I just don’t think that’s a reasonable thing to do. 

You have argued that reconciliation is more difficult when people have lost not only loved ones, but also their land and livelihoods, as happened to millions of Colombians displaced from their farms by violence. What kind of land redistribution is necessary to make the reintegration there work?

One of the reasons that reconciliation’s hard is you have to look at a redistribution of resources. Poverty is a reminder of all that you’ve lost. There is a political economy to emotions, and people may feel more compassionate with one another when they are not living in grinding poverty, especially if you perceive that those people—and whoever those people are depends on who was on the other side—if those people are doing better than you are. I talked to widows in Peru who lost everything: “They sit there in their house with their families, they have a roof, they have food at night, and you tell me I’m supposed to forgive them?” 

One real quick way to get yourself on a hit list in Colombia is to be seen as demanding land. But if you want any kind of sustainable coexistence, there’s going to have to be a redistribution of land. It’s key. You have 5 million, 5 and a half million internally displaced people. Where are they supposed to go? Not everyone will want to go back to their land. But they’re going to want to have something.

female FARC soldier

A rebel preparing to demobilize in January. Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images.

You’ve said that some disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programs suggest that female combatants need to be “redomesticated.” How do they do that? 

When women are violent actors, there’s a sense of that being deeply transgressive of our notions of what women are supposed to be doing. So you find that there’s much more stigmatizing of female former combatants than there is of men: “They’re bad women. They abandoned their families.”

The DDR program ads they were using to get the women to demobilize said things like “Guerreiras. Women combatants: Demobilize. Be a woman again.” And they would have these women putting lipstick on—“Come and feel like a woman again.” The gender essentialisms that have infused how they’ve gone about this are huge. The redomestication is about getting the women to be good women again, back into the nuclear family and having babies within that heteronormative matrix. And that’s not going to cut it. 

There needs to be a scripting of new gender roles and expectations, not assuming, “OK, now it’s all over, so let’s go back to how it always was before.” Which wasn’t always that great, probably. 

If it was transgressive for women to join the guerrillas, was it considered normal for men to do so?

It’s been part of a broader culture. In a neighborhood where pretty much all of the guys either became paramilitaries, gang members or FARC guerrillas, I’ve talked to some young men who say, “Oh, I just couldn’t wait to grow up and be a man and have a gun.” This has permeated a broader swath of culture in Colombia than just the folks who joined. 

We should study the fusion of masculinity with weaponry and violence. For many men, setting down your weapon is experienced as emasculating. So how do we script new ways of feeling that you get to be a man? What are some of the other positive connotations of what you learned out there? Was it solidarity with those around you? What can we say is positive about these masculinities and disarticulate them from “I’m going to grab a gun and go shoot somebody”? 

Send comments to Heather Stephenson at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.