As Colombia pursues peace, victims of the conflict struggle with forgiveness

Edgar Bermudez, 35, who was blinded in a 2005 attack by Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, poses with his two daughters Camila Sofia, 5, and Alisson Juliana, 3, outside his home. The government recognizes 6.7 million victims of the 50-year civil conflict.
Edgar Bermudez, 35, who was blinded in a 2005 attack by Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, poses with his two daughters Camila Sofia, 5, and Alisson Juliana, 3, outside his home. The government recognizes 6.7 million victims of the 50-year civil conflict. Juan Manuel Barrero Bueno

Gloria was 10 years old when armed rebels burst into her home at night, forced her father to his knees and shot him twice in the back of the head as the family watched. The guerrillas never said why. When she was 14, the men returned. Four of them raped her.

Now 20, Gloria (whose real name is not being used to protect her safety) is putting her life back together in the colonial town of Popayán, about an eight-hour bus ride from her troubled Andean village.

Far from family members and friends, Gloria says she harbors no hatred toward the men who shattered her life.

“In the middle of it all,” she says, “something good came out of it.”

Colombia is, perhaps, closer than ever to signing a peace deal that would put an end to a half-century-old conflict that has left at least 220,000 dead and forced some 5.7 million people to flee their homes.

This month marks the second anniversary since government negotiators and representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas began holding closed-door meetings in Havana.

President Juan Manuel Santos says a deal is within reach even as a powerful opposition worries that the FARC — considered a terrorist organization by Colombia and the United States — will go unpunished for its crimes. But whether an eventual deal has any meaning may depend on the willingness of individuals like Gloria, and the nation, to forgive rather than perpetuate cycles of violence.

The government recognizes 6.7 million victims of the conflict, about the population of Massachusetts, including the maimed, orphaned and displaced. Since August, groups of victims, both of guerrilla and state violence, have been making the pilgrimage to Havana to confront their abusers.

Involving victims in an already-delicate peace process — when fresh fighting is generating new casualties and keeping emotions raw — was a calculated risk, said Santos. But the results, he argues, have been heartening.

“The victims, we have discovered, are more generous in terms of what they are able to accept than the average population,” he said at a recent conference in New York. “The victims are more willing to forgive, more willing to be generous, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Edgar Bermudez, 35, was a policeman in southern Colombia working on a coca-eradication program when his unit was ambushed by the FARC on Aug. 16, 2005. He fought through the night as mortar rounds and machine-gun fire rained down on him.

“It was terrifying,” he said. “At times like that, you would prefer the earth to swallow you.”

In the morning, he and several comrades captured a hilltop and were headed back to camp when he heard a high-pitched whine. Suddenly, the side of the gulley they were walking through exploded — an anti-personnel mine had been tripped. The blast killed one of Bermudez’s best friends and ripped off the jaw of the man behind him. It also sent a wooden pole through Bermudez’s left eye, tore off his lips and peeled his scalp back “like an accordion” from just above his eyebrows to the center of his skull.

When he woke up in the hospital the next day he was completely blind. The doctors said the shrapnel in the homemade explosive, which was also embedded in his eye, had been covered in human excrement.

“The idea was that if the explosion didn’t kill us, the infection would,” Bermudez said.

Sitting in his small home in Bogotá, Bermudez has the right to be bitter. In the spot where his left eye should be, skin grafted from his leg has been stretched over the socket. When he cries — as he does when he recalls that day — tears push through the skin like perspiration.

He spent 59 days in a hospital and, since he got out, he has had to fight government bureaucracy for everything from his cane to reconstructive surgery. Once handsome, people now stare at him and make the sign of the cross as if he were some sort of warning, he said. One of his beloved nieces is scared to look at him. His condition has sent his mother into a deep depression.

But he says he doesn’t dream of revenge — he just wants the national nightmare to end. And he sees the peace process as the best chance of that happening.

“I could let my heart be full of anger, sadness, hatred and depression,” he said, “but what I want is for this to quit happening to my comrades.”

He also wants a better future for his young daughters, Camila Sofia, 5, and Alisson Juliana, 3.

When he still had his eyesight, Bermudez was a fan of Hollywood war movies. But the reality is far more complicated, he said.

Many of the FARC soldiers he fought against are simply poor peasants who had little choice but to join the group. Bermudez recognizes that if he had been born in another part of the country under different circumstances, he might have been on the other side of the front line.

“We’re not fighting Americans, or the Vietnamese or foreigners,” he said. “For Christ’s sake, they’re from here. Who am I to judge someone for becoming a guerrilla?”

Not everyone is ready to turn the other cheek, said Paula Gaviria, director of the government’s Victims Unit, which has been traveling to Cuba with delegations of those affected by the conflict.

For some, going to Cuba and facing their abusers has been cathartic. But others are demanding more contrition from the FARC, she said.

While the guerrillas have talked about “errors” they have committed during the 50-year war, they have stopped short of delivering an outright apology.

“The country needs a concrete demonstration that they’re sorry,” Gaviria said. “The country is demanding that their talk about ending the conflict is real and evident.”

The Rev. Leonel Narváez is the president of the Foundation for Reconciliation, which has provided psychological counseling to more than 600,000 people affected by the conflict. He describes his job as eradicating the “virus of hatred and the desire for revenge.”

But in polarized Colombia, even that seemingly benign mission is dangerous. Narváez has been getting death threats for talking about national reconciliation.

“Forgiveness has enemies here in Colombia,” he said. “There’s a very important part of the population that doesn’t want a negotiated peace because they want the guerrillas to pay for everything they’ve done and for them all to go to jail for years.”

Critics of the process don’t understand why the government would negotiate with a drug-trafficking terrorist organization when they believe the military is capable of wiping out the guerrillas, who are thought to number fewer than 8,000.

Instead, the government has suggested guerrilla commanders may see reduced sentences or even avoid jail time altogether. But until it is clear what a transitional justice regime might look like, there are huge political risks for the guerrillas, Narváez said.

“A victimizer is never going to ask for forgiveness if he’s not in a safe environment where he knows that he won’t be punished excessively,” Narváez said. “If the FARC recognize their crimes and ask for forgiveness before the peace process is complete, they may pay too high of a price. But I believe that we’ll reach a moment where they will have to ask for forgiveness.”

Narávez said that in his experience, victims don’t need an apology to forgive because forgiveness is an exercise in “personal rebuilding.”

For people like Bermudez, the policeman, they have lost so much that forgiving is a way to hold onto their humanity. He and another wounded soldier, Wilson Calderon, who was also left blind by a FARC attack, are trying to establish a foundation to help other disabled veterans.

Calderon, 40, gets angry when he hears politicians discredit the peace process and say the guerrillas can only be crushed by force.

“They don’t know what it’s like to go through life being disfigured,” he said. “They just give the orders, but it’s the common people who are getting killed and injured.”

For Gloria in Popayán, it’s what the conflict has left behind that has allowed her to move forward.

After a short walk through her whitewashed adopted city, she stops at a store. A young boy runs out and hugs her knees. He says it was a hard day at school, that he had to think so hard it made his head sweat.

The chatty, squirming, funny boy is the result of that brutal night five years ago.

“I love my son very much,” she said. “I can forgive the men who did this to me, but they will have to answer to God at some point. I don’t have hatred.”

Gloria said when her son is older, she will tell him the truth about that night. For now, she tells him his father lives in a faraway city. Even though she doesn’t know the father of her child, she says it’s OK. “He looks like me, doesn’t he?” she asks.

The peace process and the country still face huge hurdles. Fighting continues to produce new victims. Colombians will have to come to terms with allowing ex-combatants back into society. A truth commission will force them to face ugly national truths.

“At that moment, we’re going to have to rely on victims who have already learned how to transform their pain,” said Gaviria, the government official. “That’s where we’re going to find the keys to surviving as a society.”

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