Students Examine Post-Conflict Peacebuilding Conditions in Colombia

Sixteen students, two USD administrators and Kroc School of Peace Studies Professor Necla Tschirgi recently traveled to Bogat√°, Colombia to examine post-conflict peacebuilding conditions.

Peace is beautiful. Peace is joy, it is blissful. That's what most people see, think and understand when they hear the word peace. It’s the realization of a dream, a romanticized state of being and an unequaled state of euphoria.

Colombia Trip 2017 - KSPS

Maybe that's true, but the reality when countries work to reach a level of understanding, enough to have a peace agreement in place, is that the truest feeling of peace comes from the peacebuilding itself. Peace is difficult. It can be fleeting, especially when forced. In many countries, the achievement of peace can be countered by skepticism and a lack of trust in government leaders. 

"Peace is complicated and messy," said Blake Harper, a graduate student in the Kroc School master's program. "It's not that you wake up one day and there's peace in the country. It takes years, if not decades, and maybe centuries to really overcome conflict. Some would say that in our country, we've still not overcome the Civil War and we've never healed from the way that Blacks have been treated in this country." 

Post-Conflict Peacebuilding in Colombia 

A peace accord was recently reached in Colombia between the government leaders and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It is a stunning development after more than 50 years of war. As a result, Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos received the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. 

And, as news of this peace accord was revealed, University of San Diego Kroc School Professor Necla Tschirgi seized the opportunity to teach a spring class on post-conflict peacebuilding in Colombia. 

Tschirgi had prior exposure. In Summer 2015, she was invited to teach a peacebuilding course at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. At that time, the future of the latest peace negotiations was “a toss-up,” she said. There had been many failed attempts at peace and Colombians were skeptical about a successful peace accord. 

In September 2016, the government announced that an accord had been reached, but when the accord was submitted for referendum, it was rejected by a small margin. Furthermore, nearly 60 percent of the population did not vote. That rejection, along with voter indifference, seemed to doom the peace agreement. Yet, after more negotiations, the government submitted a revised peace accord to the national congress and it was approved. It ushered in an uncertain, but hopeful, phase in Colombia's history.  

Tschirgi looked forward to teaching students about post-conflict peacebuilding, which has gained attention as a field of study and practice since the end of the Cold War. Included in her class was a first-ever opportunity for students to visit Bogotá during USD's spring break week in early March. The goal was for students to gain on-the-ground understanding of Colombia's conflict and peace process. Sixteen students, Dr. Tschirgi and two USD administrators went. 

"We had a jam-packed schedule to take advantage of every opportunity," said Tschirgi of a program with formal presentations by local academics, analysts and practitioners, visits to universities, museums and other cultural and historical sites. "All of the presentations were stimulating and thought-provoking, offering multi-faceted analyses of the sources and dynamics of Colombia's conflict over time and the challenges of the peace ahead." 

Students were eager to see, hear and learn from those who were directly affected. 

"I started doing research about Colombia last semester, so it's different to read what the academics are saying, what books say or the news because they can be biased," said Andrea Calderon, a student from El Salvador. "For me it was really important to talk with civilians to see what they think about the peace process." 

Yishak Tefferi, a student from Ethiopia, wanted to learn about the prospects and challenges of the peace agreement and, "particularly, I was interested in the implementation and establishment of justice measures. 

On-the-Ground Reactions 

One interesting aspect of USD’s travel contingent is that it represented diverse backgrounds —the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Lithuania, Serbia and Turkey — disciplines, such as law, military, education and social sciences, and different observations emerged. 

Students met people on all sides of the peace accord voting spectrum — some yes voters, many who voted no, non-voters and, as Kenyan student Patricia Wakhusama noted, "those who had no idea what the peace agreement was about and only followed whatever the politicians were saying. They wouldn't know because people lied to them. We met a person who said his lawyer told him to vote no because they would not have jobs. There was a lot of propaganda."

Tschirgi saw "a paradoxical situation" in Colombia. "On the surface, where we stayed in Bogotá, they don't feel the conflict at all. You could still live there another 40 years with the conflict. It wasn't like it was bringing the country down, but a cancer that was eating at the societal body. We were shocked by some people who kept saying, 'No, we don't want this peace, or we want peace, but not this peace.' When we'd ask, what peace do you want, they didn't have an answer. The contradictions, the paradoxical, the messiness, it came alive by being there." 

One student noted: "You'd think that when there's a peace agreement, why wouldn't you vote for peace? Doesn't everyone want peace? It's funny when you're getting your degree in peace and justice and it seems like those things go together, but a lot of people want more justice, retribution or revenge. These people who voted against it didn't want this peace because there wasn't enough justice. For us, as outsiders, you think if you get peace, you solve your problem. But when you’re personally in it, it's different. When it's your family and your community, you feel justice is more important than ending a conflict." 

International Perspective on International Comparisons 

Numerous international students, some of whom are from countries that have experienced wars and seen the post-conflict effects, spoke up about Colombia. 

"What I saw in Colombia gives me hope," said El Salvador's Calderon. "I was born and raised in this post-conflict period after the Civil War. Even though I was a kid, I could notice how the transitional justice was so disorganized in my country. While I was there I was always making similarities between my country and Colombia because we also had the guerrilla and many years of war and now they have crime with drugs and gangs. I asked if they are afraid that the situation can turn into what El Salvador has right now, but I think it wouldn't. The answers I got give me hope. The government is stronger and has more control and the police are better organized. ... I think Colombia, even though it will be a difficult process, I think we can hope at the end it will turn into a good result." 

Added Ethiopia’s Tefferi: "From my experience with conflict in my own country and working in South Sudan, when I saw the situation in Colombia, the facts may be different and context may be different, but the general issues of peacebuilding and transitional justice remain the same. They show peace versus justice or accountability. But the difference in Colombia, I think, is Colombian politicians have learned from their past. In the previous peace agreements, they made a mistake, so they tried to learn from those mistakes and probably the new peace agreement is more effective." 

Elizabeth Moedano, who is from Escondido, Calif., noted comparisons to what's happening in Mexico. "My mom lives in Mexico and I spend a lot of time there. In talking with the taxi drivers, those who are selling souvenirs, people among the lower class, people in rural areas, and every person said no. You'd ask them why and they were unsure what the peace process entailed or they had a lot of distrust in government and that's exactly what is happening in Mexico. These people have been in the same situation for generations and generations and they blame the government. They ask, 'Why hasn't our situation changed? In Colombia, that's why the lower class is saying they want justice and not this peace process. They're in the majority of the population who live in the slums and who have the violence every day. I see a lot of distrust of the government. That's either going to change through education or being more aware of the peace process, but there's also situations with FARC where the government is trying to work with them or disarm them but the camps aren't ready to move into yet and that results in more distrust in government. This is an issue. If they're able to trust the government again that will bring a lot of hope for the peace process." 

Mexico's Susana Escobedo, sees peace as a compromise. "Peace has a price, whether it's an increase in taxes or being willing to accept lower sentences or other measures. Peace has a price, peace is long-term, and yet some people want to see immediate peace and don't necessarily want to pay that price, but we have to see it beyond our lifetime." 

Understanding the Process 

While the trip was a whirlwind, one student, Hungary's Brittney Ochira, appreciated hearing from officials who have key roles in the post-peacebuilding process. One speaker was a director from the president's peace implementation bureau. 

"She worked for the government during the transition and negotiation process and I was amazed by the logistical detail that went into every part of the peace agreement," Ochira said. "Even while in negotiations, they had to hypothetically plan for what would come from the negotiations so they'd be ready to go. Careful timing and planning goes into every part of it. I thought it was very interesting. We always see the finished product in our studies and we don't see the mechanics. Being there and meeting people in the inner workings gives us a real-world perspective that's so valuable." 

New Reality: Temporary, Long-term and How? 

Tschirgi offered a parting thought: "Any peace agreement creates a new reality." 

That is true, but it could be short-lived. Colombia has its presidential election in 2018 and that should reveal the fate of the peace agreement. 

Serbia’s Starcevic in response to Tschirgi’s comment, voiced a sobering observation: "The peace accord makes a new reality, but for the people we talked to in Colombia, how do you make this new reality when you've lived all of your life in war? What does it mean to live in peace? This is the unknown for Colombia and they have to construct it from nothing." 

— Ryan T. Blystone

All photos provided by Renata Berto

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