A Nation Kidnapped
The editorial published in the Colombian newspaper Diario del Sur on July 6 (“A Slap in the Face of Violence”) was ecstatic: “Never before, in spite of the violence that has oppressed us during so many years, has Colombia lived a day like yesterday: historic and unforgettable in every aspect.”
At noon on July 5, Colombians throughout the country poured into the streets to show their outrage at the news that 11 provincial politicians had been killed while being held by leftist rebels. A human chain was formed, with participants wearing white tops. My colleagues in the capital, Bogotá, and in the south of the country, where we have humanitarian projects, say that everyone was waving white scarves. White balloons were launched everywhere. Press agencies estimate that, with more than one million participants, this was the largest public protest since October 1999, which was also – sadly – a demonstration against violence and kidnappings.
But, while the killing of the 11 congressmen from Cali region – attributed to “crossfire’” during an attack by an “unidentified military group”the leftist rebels – provoked shock and anger, there was no agreement on how to solve the chronic problem of “El Secuestro” (The Kidnapping). Some Colombians demand a “humanitarian accord” – an exchange of prisoners for hostages – and reject “blood and fire” rescue attempts. Others oppose “ceding the territory” (setting up a demilitarized zone, where any such exchange could take place) and demand of the government “firmeza, siempre firmeza!” (to be “firm” and go after the rebels).
As is often the case in armed conflicts, civilians suffer the most. The July 5 protest reminded us of the 3,000 kidnappings since the start of this four-decade conflict, but Colombians could form human chains and release white balloons for many other reasons.
Consider, for example, Colombia’s grim ranking as global leader in the number of victims injured by landmines. According to “Landmine Monitor 2006,” Colombia had 1,110 victims last year, followed by Cambodia with 875 and Afghanistan with 848.
This unnoticed drama is emblematic of the under-reported Colombian conflict. Indeed, if there were such a thing as a combined index of despair, Colombia would be an undisputed leader. Hostage-taking, and killing and maiming by landmines, are but the side effects of the oldest and longest-running civil war in Latin America, which has resulted in three million internally displaced persons – one of the world’s highest levels, close to that of Sudan, Congo, and Iraq.
Even if there were, by some miracle, a negotiated end to the fighting, the scars left by this conflict will remain. So, besides helping the country find a political solution, there is also a need to focus on long-term reconstruction and reconciliation, so that young lives distorted by the civil war can be righted and children can be rescued from the harmful influence of so much violence and bloodshed.
In Colombia’s south – where the heavy presence of illegal armed groups makes social peace a distant dream – I went to visit a secondary school, as part of a needs assessment. After four hours on a dirt road, I reached a highlands hamlet. The smart and friendly teenagers were eager to learn how to surf the Internet, just installed in their school.
But when I asked five of them what they would like to become, I understood that this conflict has marked them forever. Their dream careers were: lawyer, criminal investigator, forensic physician, and soldier. The fifth one wanted to become a chemist, so that he could set up a cocaine laboratory. The teenagers’ plans simply reflect a sad reality: these pupils are the second generation that has not known anything but war.
On the day of the march against violence, next to the editorial in Diario del Sur was a simple, one-question opinion poll: “Do you think that the security [in our department’s capital] has improved since the beginning of the year?” Over 90% said “no.” This is why thousands went into the streets to be counted.
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The above article was published by Project Syndicate member newspapers and Web sites in 6 countries in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.