News - October 8, 2015

'There's no other way of achieving peace'

Roelof Kleis

JulianCortes, a Colombian political refugee and Master’s student at Wageningen UR, was in Havana (Cuba) last month to interview members of the FARC. Resource spoke to him.

Julian Cortes was in luck as while he was there, the negotiators reached agreement on a provisional peace settlement. After almost 60 years, it seems as if the end is in sight for Colombia’s civil war.

Why were you in Havana?
'I was interviewing seven rebels who were part of the FARC’s team of negotiators in
Havana. I’m doing my thesis with the Sociology of Development and Change Group for my Master’s in Development & Rural Innovation. My research is on the rural development practices that the FARC have in rural areas. The FARC do a lot of
community work in the areas they control. They provide laws and regulation, run
health campaigns and support the creation of community action groups. That is the positive side of the guerrilla. I want to get a picture of that side of the FARC.’

Do you sympathize with the FARC?
'‘I think that the FARC have done some interesting work in rural communities. They have interesting political ideas on how to improve democracy in Colombia and make conditions better in the countryside. Of course as a product of the war, they have committed violent actions. That is why we have to stop the war. A lot of Colombians sympathize with the guerilla’s principles. The problem in Colombia is that if you agree with some of their ideas, you are seen as a member of the FARC. But I’m not a FARC member, I’m a pacifist.’

Do you want to alter the image of the FARC?
‘No, I want to tell the story that has not been told by the mass media. The guerrilla
movements are painted as being evils. But that is not the true situation as I experienced it when I was working with some farming communities in regions occupied by the FARC. The guerrillas are seen as responsible for all of Colombia’s problems but that’s not the case. In Colombia, more people die every year from famine and malnourishment than at the hands of the guerrillas. But people in Colombia and other countries don’t realize that.’ 

You are a political refugee. Why did you have to leave your country?
'‘I was a student leader at the National University of Colombia in Bogota. After I graduated, I worked with farmers’ groups in the areas controlled by the guerrillas. After that, I was a lecturer at the university in Bogota. Then I was accused of being with the guerrillas and concocting a plan to assassinate the president at the time, Uribe. That was a big lie. I spent three years in prison. That’s how it works in Colombia. I was a ‘false positive’, as human rights defenders call it. At present there are 10,000 political prisoners in Colombia. Only 1300 of them are FARC members; the rest are students, farmers, academics or intellectuals. When I was released from prison, the paramilitary threatened to kill me so I left the country. I requested political asylum in Belgium. I live in Brussels, but I’ve spent most of the past year in Wageningen because of my study.’

In Colombia, more people die every year from famine and malnourishment than at the hands of the guerillas
Julian Cortes

The breakthrough in the negotiations was the agreement on the adjudication of crimes committed during the civil war. What do you think of the outcome?
‘This agreement means that the government is accepting the guerrilla movement’s political status. So the guerrillas are no longer being seen as a terrorist group. That’s really important. The adjudication of crimes applies to all the actors in the conflict. That is very interesting because violations of human rights are also committed by the Colombian army and paramilitary groups, not by the guerrillas. In signing this agreement, the government is accepting that responsibility.’

It has been agreed that no one will go to prison. The retribution for crimes will be community service. Is that acceptable for the victims, whichever side they were on?
‘That is a problem. We Colombians have a long history of violence and the peace settlement is the only way to end that. There is no other way of achieving peace. I am a victim too. I was persecuted, put in prison and had to leave my country. I’ve lost a lot but I survived. Both sides will need to accept the situation and make a start on reconciliation. And that reconciliation does not just apply to the victims. Colombia is incredibly polarized. Colombians will have to learn to live with the fact that there are differences of opinion and that we should not defend them with weapons.’