Waiting for peace, Colombia youths set up camp in main square

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The tatty cluster of tents occupying a corner of Bogota’s central square jars with the parliament’s classical architecture and the colonial cathedral, but the hundreds of young people camped out here say they are not leaving until peace comes to Colombia.

In a referendum a month ago, Colombians narrowly rejected an historic peace accord to end five decades of war signed between the government and rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Peace negotiators from both sides are back in Cuba, where peace talks took place for four years, discussing proposals for changes and additions to the deal from representatives of those who voted to reject it.

The “No” side, led by former president Alvaro Uribe, says the accord was too lenient on the rebels and wants tougher punishments for fighters who have committed war crimes, possibly jail time, and a ban on them holding elected office.

While negotiators try to hammer out a new deal, young Colombians, including university students, have been camping out in the capital’s main square for nearly a month.

“When the ‘No’ vote won it was painful. The tents are a show of our frustration, of our indignation,” said Manuel Llano, who pitched his tent just days after the shock result on Oct. 2.

Since then others have joined the so-called peace camp dotted with white flags and Colombia’s national flag where around 300 people are living in some 100 tents.

They are staying put until a new accord is reached and want guarantees from the government a ceasefire will hold until the FARC’s 7,000 fighters hand in their weapons, said Llano.

“We want peace to come quickly,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We represent a national clamor for peace,” said the 28-year-old designer, whose parents had to leave their home because of the conflict.

Since the referendum result, tens of thousands of Colombians have taken to the streets in protest marches, many of them young people and students, to show support for a peace deal.

The peace camp, just steps away from the presidential palace, caught the attention of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos who visited last week.

“He listened attentively to our demands .. he told us we will enjoy Christmas in peace,” said Llano, one of the camp leaders.


Santos said earlier this week a new deal could be reached soon and may be put to Colombia’s congress for approval.

“We are very close to the definition of a new accord with the necessary legal and political legitimacy needed so it can be implemented in the shortest time possible,” Santos said.

Time is short for negotiators to secure a new agreement before a government ceasefire ends on Dec. 31.

“To administer a ceasefire, the one that we have right now, for a long, long time is very difficult,” Santos said in an interview with PBS television this week.

The longer the ceasefire is in place, the harder it is to keep it intact and for discipline to hold among FARC fighters.

“We need to have a new agreement very soon in order to avoid the risks of people getting out, the base of the FARC, going to other regions and simply abandoning their organization,” he said.


Among those camped in the square are Colombians who have suffered at the hands of FARC rebels, including a small number of Afro-Colombian and indigenous people, who have borne the brunt of violence mainly concentrated in rural and jungle areas.

The conflict has killed more than 200,000 people, and there are nearly 8 million war victims registered by the government, the majority of whom have been forcibly driven from their homes by the warring sides.

Rodolfo Oviedo, 40, had to flee his small farm in the central Tolima province in 2004 when FARC fighters attacked his family.

“They forced me off my land. They killed my father, two brothers, two sons and my wife. I’d forgive them (rebels) given a chance to speak to them in person,” he said, with tears in his eyes.

“It leaves a mark on your life forever. At the camp I’ve found help from people to heal my wounds a bit. I’ve found solidarity and a community,” said Oviedo, who has been camping out for the past 27 days.

He urged those who voted ‘No’ in the referendum to show more empathy with fellow Colombians like him who have lived in the country’s impoverished rural and border areas most battered by the conflict.

“I’d tell the ‘No’ voters put your hand on your heart and stop being selfish. Many haven’t lived the war like we have,” Oviedo said.

“I’ll stay put here until the end. I want peace in Colombia.”