To Achieve Peace, Colombians Must Get Beyond the Victim and Perpetrator Narrative

An empty soccer field in Colombia
Photo credit: Alexandra Amling

While Colombians signed a peace treaty in November 2016, anger and resentment remain on all sides. Many of the Colombians who have been hurt by kidnappings, displacement, and murder still consider the ex-combatants to have been the perpetrators in this conflict—the people from whom they still need protection. Meanwhile, members of the rebel groups point out the inequalities that persist in Colombia and the reign of terror by paramilitaries. The government is working to reincorporate the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other rebels into mainstream Colombian society. But can Colombians truly find peace when neither side acknowledges their role in the war—when people see others as “perpetrators” and their own people as “victims?”

Earlier this year, I spent four weeks in Colombia, meeting former combatants from different armed groups. During this field work, I also met with FARC fighters in the transition zone of La Paz, in the northeastern region of Cesar. Sitting under a massive mango tree, the pristine landscape around us gave the subtle impression of peace. At the dawn of a new age in post-conflict Colombia, these fighters shared their personal histories of the socio-economic grievances that sparked the rebellion more than five decades ago. Women fighters spoke of joining rebels to escape gender discrimination and violence, which was compounded by economic distress. They told me that guerilla movements, like the FARC, provided protection and an opportunity to gain respect that was not common for rural Colombian women.

But I also met with more than 30 victims of both the guerillas and the paramilitaries and heard their stories. “They [the guerillas] marked us, even if we did not want to be part of the conflict. They made us [actors in the conflict],” an older, Afro-Colombian woman told me. She had lost family members to drug trafficking, kidnappings, and forced recruitment, among other horrors of this war.

It’s much harder for those who have been traumatized to see beyond their own trauma.

I listened to each story with empathy, but I reminded myself that as an outsider to the conflict it’s easier for me to see how the war has hurt all Colombians, rich and poor, campesinas and city dwellers.  And that, I realized in my meetings, is the crux of the matter. It’s much harder for those who have been traumatized to see beyond their own trauma.

And if parties to a conflict cannot get beyond a sense of victimization and see their role in the conflict, they can transmit their sense of trauma to their children. Vamik Volkan, a psychiatry professor specializing in international conflict calls this “chosen trauma.” This trauma can become part of a group’s identity making reconciliation that much harder. Chosen trauma does not always stick neatly to historical fact. Volkan writes, “Fact and fantasy, past and present [are] intimately and violently intermingled.”

He explains that the shared mental representation of an event goes beyond the individual and develops into a strong identity marker for an entire group. Historical truth becomes irrelevant, and the chosen trauma ends up being transmitted through generations. In some cases, but not all, this process prevents societies from reconciling properly.

The Struggle to Determine the Truth

Without public discourse, an affected society will struggle to understand and overcome the trauma caused by the violence.

It is crucial that people have the opportunity to both express their trauma and to be exposed to the experience of others—their former adversaries. This will happen in Colombia since the peace agreement stipulates the establishment of a truth commission that will bring to light the atrocities of both government and rebels. Without public discourse, an affected society will struggle to understand and overcome the trauma caused by the violence. In her work on narrative psychology, Michele L. Crossley rightfully pointed out that a person’s life story belongs to a particular cultural and historical context. As such, the narratives of all actors involved in the conflict need to be embedded in a national dialogue that does not emphasize one position over another.

But truth commissions are controversial in scholarly literature. Do they really heal societies and prevent future violence?

They do, and they don’t. In some cases, truth commissions alleviate the risk of an upsurge of violence. Perpetrators are confronted by their victims and try to find common ground from which to rebuild divided societies. Because truth commissions are not legal trials, they can engage with society rather than focusing solely on individuals. They provide a platform for articulating feelings and personal histories that are not assessed by judicial accuracy. Listening to these accounts is a crucial way to understand what drove people to take the actions they did.

The basis of reconciliation must be an open and empathetic dialogue.

But truth commissions cannot work in isolation. They must be part of a larger set of transitional justice mechanisms that unearth and prosecute past crimes and deal with the root causes through legal and policy reforms. An example from South Africa is telling: in their collaborative work on healing trauma through narration, Chris van der Merwe and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela concluded that truth commissions can serve as catalysts for bridging divides within polarized societies. However, despite the success of the truth commission in South Africa, unaddressed root causes of the conflict, such as structural inequality between economic (mostly white) elites and blacks, has been a key factor in the continued violence and instability in the country. This is a key lesson for Colombia.

But the basis of reconciliation must be an open and empathetic dialogue. Without this, Colombians will have a difficult time re-adjusting to one another. Combatants in particular will face challenges returning to civilian life. If their path was not hard enough, combatants also suffer from long-lasting, untreated trauma and years of concealing their past to their communities.

In the end, the perception of whether one is a perpetrator or a victim depends from where the observer starts. And this cannot be easily dismissed. On the contrary, it needs to be taken into account in order to rebuild the bridges that have been crumbling under the pressure of 50 years of armed conflict.