A campaign is encouraging the youth of Colombia to send letters of hope and support to the ex-combatants of the FARC now struggling to find their place and establish a new way of life.
Why do we only send love letters to people we know? Isn’t it much more important to show affection for those who feel rejected? This idea haunted Colombian youth activists Leonardo Párraga from the BogotArt Foundation and Cristian Palacios from the Young Youth Foundation, and served as their inspiration in founding Cartas por la Reconciliación (Letters for Reconciliation), a campaign that encourages young people to send letters to guerrilla fighters.
A historic event had recently taken place in their country, and they wanted to do their part: After years of negotiations, the Colombian government had reached a peace agreement with the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), thus ending Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict.
Internationally, the signing of the peace accord was considered such an important step that President José Manuel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. But there is still a long way to go before true reconciliation and peace have been achieved. Guerrilla fighters — people who have lived in illegal camps for years, who have been exposed to the rhetoric of war and have kept their weapons by their sides 24/7 — will now somehow have to integrate into civilian life. And Colombian society, accustomed to an abiding fear and, in some cases, a deep hatred for the guerrilla fighters, will have to accept them back and support them in setting up new lives.
Leonardo and Cristian were convinced that Colombia’s youth had to come together and help the reintegration process along. And they have: So far, thousands of young people have written letters – love letters to ex-guerrilla combatants, welcoming them back into society. Their aim is to write 6,900 messages, one for each former guerrillero, and hand them over personally.
How Valentine’s Day became the campaign’s inspiration
The idea to found Cartas de Reconciliación was born at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Bogotá in February 2017, when Leonardo and Cristian had an opportunity to briefly talk with 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kailash Satyarthi. The laureate mentioned that we write tons of love letters to those we love on Valentine’s Day, while forgetting the people most in need. His plan this year, he added, was to share love with those who needed encouragement the most.
Leonardo and Cristian adapted the idea to the Colombian context, and came up with the plan to send letters of hope and support to the ex-combatants of the FARC now struggling to find their place and establish a new way of life. “The letters will show that Colombian society is ready to change the discourse from a narrative of war to a collective story of peace,” they say.
So far, the campaign has collected more than 2,000 messages, and the first 765 have been delivered. The initiative is active in all of Colombia’s biggest cities including Cali, Manizales, Medellín, Barranquilla and Bogotá.
‘I never thought there was anyone willing to forgive me’
The first 500 letters were delivered on March 19 at one of the UN camps in the Caldono-Cauca area. A group of 40 students from Javeriana University of Cali, two members of the Cali mayor’s office and Leonardo of the BogotArt Foundation travelled to the camp to personally hand over the letters.
The members of the FARC lined up the way they once did to receive orders from their leaders, but this time it was to receive letters of support from people all over the country. It was a highly emotional, moving moment for all involved. “It is incredible how many feelings you can go through in just a few hours, from fear to happiness and everything in between,” political science student Manuela Jiménez Avila stated afterwards.
Sandra Parra from the office of the governor of Valle del Cauca recounted the unforgettable experience