A Colombian Torture Survivor Weighs In On The Nation’s Historic Peace Deal

Hector Aristizabal performs his autobiographical play “Nightwind,” about surviving torture at the hands of the Colombian military. CREDIT: ImagineAction Theater
Hector Aristizabal performs his autobiographical play “Nightwind,” about surviving torture at the hands of the Colombian military. CREDIT: ImagineAction Theater

UPDATE: On Sunday, voters in Colombia narrowly rejected the landmark peace agreement, sending shock waves through a country that has endured more than half a century of armed conflict.

“I was speechless and devastated,” Aristizabal said. “A vote as polarized as the one we had yesterday is no win for any part. The No to the peace agreement won by less than 60,000 votes. If the Yes had won by such short margin, it wold have been very problematic.”

This week, the Colombian government signed a landmark peace deal with the country’s largest armed guerrilla group, bringing a formal end to a bloody conflict that has last more than half a century and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

The peace agreement was forged over four years in Havana, Cuba, where the leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Juan Manuel Santos administration decided when the FARC will lay down their arms, who will be held accountable for war crimes on both sides, how victims will be compensated, and when former guerrilla leaders will have the right to run for office. Now the deal is up for a vote by the entire Colombian people on October 2.

Actor and activist Hector Aristizabal is one of millions of Colombians whose life has been shaped by the 52–year internal armed conflict. When he was a student at Antioquia University in the late 1980s, he was kidnapped and tortured by the Colombian military, who falsely accused him of being a FARC sympathizer. He was waterboarded, electrocuted, beaten, and deprived of food, water, and sleep. Thanks to an international human rights group who demanded to know his whereabouts, he was released, but ongoing death threats forced him to flee to the United States.

After decades learning to process his own trauma through theater and teaching others to do the same, he returned to Colombia this year, and began working with the government and victims across the country on achieving reconciliation.

Aristizabal spoke to ThinkProgress over Skype from his hometown of Medellin about what struggles remain for the country, how the U.S. should be held accountable for its role in the conflict, and why some Colombians vehemently oppose the peace deal.

As someone who has lost friends and family and was driven into exile by the conflict, how did you feel on Wednesday when the news broke that a peace deal had been reached?

We were all very excited. There was a lot of celebration, even though it was hard to believe, since this was the fifth or sixth attempt at peace negotiations. But this one has really been different, there has really been a commitment from both the government and the FARC. And it has been one of the most inclusive peace processes in history. Victims of both the guerrilla and the military have flown to Havana, thousands of them, to tell their stories and express their concerns.

Colombians celebrate the announcement of the peace accord in the streets of the capital of Bogota on Wednesday night. CREDIT: AP Photo/Fernando Vergara
Colombians celebrate the announcement of the peace accord in the streets of the capital of Bogota on Wednesday night. CREDIT: AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

But I don’t think the conflict is going to end, because the conditions that generate the violence — the inequality — will continue. At least we hope it will end the armed conflict, and instead create a democratic conversation.

How have you been involved in the peace process?

For the last six months I’ve been working with psycho-social teams in the areas most affected by the war, teaching them how to use theater and design healing rituals. Last year, I accompanied a process where the FARC asked forgiveness from a community in the Chocó region where they committed one of the worst massacres, where they threw a bomb into a church and killed 114 people. It was a very somber and beautiful ceremony, and it showed there is a commitment to really turn the page.

“The peace process cannot really be signed on a piece of paper in Havana between the guerrilla and the government. It has to be signed in the hearts of people.”

I just participated in a theater project where we had five civilians, five ex-paramilitaries, five guerrillas, and five military people. We asked them, “What will it take to reconcile?” It’s going to become a play.

This is the kind of healing we need we need to engage in. The peace process cannot really be signed on a piece of paper in Havana between the guerrilla and the government. It has to be signed in the hearts of people. That’s the work we civilians need to do. That’s why I’m back here, because it’s a historic moment in which we all need to participate.

Will you and other torture survivors have a seat at the table when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins?

I hope so. There are more than a million of us dispersed everywhere in the world, mostly in Europe. Those of us who are direct victims of the war — and really, everyone is a victim except maybe the arms and drug dealers who benefited — we want to have a role.

I personally feel like I’ve been preparing for this moment for 25 years. I’ve participated in peace and healing processes in Northern Ireland, Palestine, Rwanda, Guatemala and El Salvador.

I’ve been training myself to come back and work with the paramilitaries who killed my brother, the military who tortured me, and with the guerrilla who I felt betrayed their ideals of a more just society and became an armed group that used kidnapping and drugs and the destruction of the environment. I have come to understand that all of these people are Colombians, and most members of these groups were peasants and had very little choice — it was the only source of employment in many places — and they were indoctrinated since they were very little. It doesn’t justify what they’ve done, but we have to feel their suffering too.

“The country is not afraid of peace, it’s afraid of the truth.”

But I’ve always said that the country is not afraid of peace, it’s afraid of the truth. The government does not want to face the fact that more than 70 percent of the more than 2,000 massacres that have been committed over the last 34 years have been committed by the paramilitaries, not by the guerrillas. And more have been committed by the military itself, under the watch of the United States and with the support of the United States. So we really need to look at what we as a society have allowed to occur, and reweave the social tissue that has been broken by war.

What questions or doubts do you have going forward?

What is clear for me going to these communities is that all reparations are symbolic. No one can bring back the 45,000 people who were disappeared, assumed dead or dumped in mass graves. Even the five to seven million people who have been displaced from their lands, we don’t know how many of can return to their land and recuperate what they had before.

But we will have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and that is where the international community will have a very important role to play. There have been peace processes before that were never fully completed, in part due to lack of funds. It’s interesting that there are always plenty of funds for war. The U.S. has sent weapons and helicopters and ammunition and training, etc. Our military is one of the best-trained militaries in the continent, and I ask, what will be the use of that military once the internal conflict is resolved? Will it be used to attack other countries, or will it protect and provide security for all of us?

FARC fighters, who control some of the country’s poorest and most remote regions, listen to a lecture on the peace process in the southern jungles of Putumayo, Colombia. CREDIT: AP Photo/Fernando Vergara
FARC fighters, who control some of the country’s poorest and most remote regions, listen to a lecture on the peace process in the southern jungles of Putumayo, Colombia. CREDIT: AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

Another big question is, since there will be a lot more foreign investment in the country if the peace plan passes, does that mean mining companies will be taking over the few pristine places we have left in Colombia? We may have a lot we have to protect going forward. But we really need that investment, because in many areas there are still no roads, and no means of communication. Places where the only source of income is the growing of coca, and where the only government presence has been the military.

So now that the government won’t be able to blame the guerrillas as the sole source of evils and difficulties in the country, I hope we’ll be able to really look at all the contradictions and social inequalities that exist in our country and make sure the conditions that generated the war can really change.

All of Colombia will get to vote on the deal on October 2. What happens if it passes?

The United Nations will oversee the first 180 days of the process. The remaining guerrillas will move into 23 zones around the country and give up their weapons. The zones will be surrounded by the military to protect them, because we know from the past that they will be at risk of assassination from the paramilitary groups that have reorganized. They have already sent communications saying, “We are going to kill all these Communist guerrillas.”

There is real concern that the violence could worsen during the next few years, and I wonder how much the government will crack down on these right-wing groups.

There has also been talk of what transitional justice will look like. Once we discover who perpetrated crimes against humanity and violations of international law, how many years in prison will they serve? It’s still to be determined and it’s very difficult. All sides committed horrible atrocities.

Much of your home region of Antioquia is opposed to the peace deal, even though it was one of the zones to suffer most from the war. Why is that?

There is a lot of animosity against [President] Santos here, lead by the ex-president Uribe, who wanted to destroy the guerrilla militarily and was unable to do so. Now he’s saying the government is “giving the country” to a bunch of criminals by signing the peace deal. There are a lot of people who follow him blindly and will believe whatever his claims are.

Even in my own extended family, there is a lot of skepticism about the peace deal, and rightly so. These are people who, for many, many years, were unable to go to their farms. They lost a lot of money and a lot of tranquility because of the guerrillas. But at the same time, they’re incredibly ignorant about the conversations that took place in Havana. Regardless, most people are slowly coming around to imagining a country that could live in peace, after living for 50 years in a war zone.