VILLAVICENCIO (Reuters) - Blanca Real traveled 17 hours by canoe and bus from Colombia’s eastern plains to listen to a message of peace by Pope Francis, in the hope he can heal her pain decades after she and her family survived a massacre.
Real, 44, is one of thousands of victims of Colombia’s half-century of conflict that will seek blessings and guidance from the pontiff on Friday during his visit to the rural town of Villavicencio.
The Argentine pope, leader of the world’s Roman Catholics, is visiting Colombia with a message of national reconciliation, as the country tries to heal the wounds left by the conflict and deep polarization over a peace deal agreed last year.
After visiting the capital Bogota on Wednesday and Thursday, Francis will travel to Villavicencio, where he will lead a prayer event with some 6,000 victims from around the Andean nation.
Villavicencio, a mid-sized city and the capital of the cattle ranching province of Meta in central Colombia, is ringed by vast plains which until recently were host to combat between leftist guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries.
“It will be comforting to get rid of this pain that we’ve suffered for so many years,” said Real, who survived a 1998 paramilitary massacre in Puerto Alvira, Meta province and was later displaced from her farm by rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Paramilitary groups, which officially demobilized back in 2006 but remain active across Colombia, were formed in the 1990s as private security forces to protect wealthy cattle ranchers and landowners from the FARC.
But they soon morphed into cruel drug-trafficking armies that massacred communities as they battled the FARC for territory.
“If I don’t forgive and take away the pain I have in my heart, I will never be able to be happy,” said Real, who lost friends among the 18 killed in the massacre.
A small group of victims and perpetrators - including civilians, former guerrillas and soldiers - are scheduled to speak at the event.
Violence between the rebels, paramilitaries and armed forces has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions more.
Other victims said that, despite the papal visit, there remained challenges.
“For my wounds to heal, to forgive these people, they need to stop hurting me, but they continue to do things in my area,” said Ana Delia Cundumi, head of a victims’ group from the southeastern jungle province of Guaviare.
“We are still seeing blood spilled in our land because of these people,” she said. “We are still threatened.”
Francis has staunchly supported the peace deal between the government and the FARC, but delayed his visit to Colombia until implementation was in full swing. The FARC has now disarmed and converted into a political party.
Remaining rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), founded by radical Roman Catholic priests in 1964, is in peace talks with the government. The two sides announced a bilateral ceasefire this week, set to last at least into January 2018.
Reporting by Nelson Bocanegra; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy and Rosalba O'Brien