By Margarita Martínez
This article is partially abridged from The Peace Project by the VII Foundation
Imagine being in Havana, Cuba, in perhaps the only room in the entire Caribbean city devoid of charm, with long beige curtains and particle-board tables set into a fixed rectangle. Seated at these tables, facing each other, are two delegations of eighteen people—nine in each delegation. They all have poker faces, changing their expressions only to issue an icy “Good morning”. Occasionally, someone rises and starts pacing, the steps measuring the tension like beats on a metronome. It is November 19, 2012, the beginning of the first day of the torturous negotiations between bitter enemies: the Colombian government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The half-century war brought unspeakable violence; more than 50,000 kidnappings, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and the displacement of a staggering eight million people. This negotiation is the fourth attempt to reach peace between the democratic government and the Marxist guerrillas.
I am a privileged observer, a Colombian journalist making a documentary film about the peace negotiations. All bets, including my own, were against success. Like most Colombians, I didn’t believe there was a will or a way. Alongside my skepticism and experience of the tense environment, I carried with me what had happened in the past.
Yet the negotiators on both sides experienced a moment of immense humanity when victims of some of the most horrendous crimes committed in Colombia were invited to speak. No other peace process had included victims this way, in the process itself; this was a Colombian innovation. The United Nations, the Catholic Church, and the National University put together a list of victims of the most brutal crimes committed by the guerrillas, the government, and the paramilitaries.
Five groups of twelve victims were brought to Havana starting on August 16, 2014. No one knew how this gambit was going to play out, and there was high anxiety about what the victims were going to say. Each of them spoke in a quiet room with windows opening to lush Caribbean vegetation. A few sobs punctuated their stories.
Constanza Turbay, a 57-year old from the Caquetá Department, in the southern Amazonas region, told how her brother died as a FARC hostage. Her mother and her other brother, a politician, were accused of being corrupt. They and their bodyguards were killed and dumped on a rural road. Turbay witnessed the demise of her entire nuclear family.
“I’ve already lost everything,” Turbay said calmly to the negotiators. “But we can do a lot to honor those loved ones we lost, to rebuild peace and reconciliation in Colombia.”
To everybody’s surprise, although the peace process had deeply divided Colombia, other victims were as supportive of it as Turbay. They gave a sense of humanity to a dry political process and sent a message to society that they, the ones who had suffered the most, where willing to turn the page, to imagine a different country for future generations.
Márquez, the FARC’s chief negotiator and a fellow child of Caquetá, approached Turbay afterwards and asked for her forgiveness. “This should have never had happened,” he said.
Margarita L. Martínez is a Colombian documentary filmmaker and journalist. She received a masters’ degree in Journalism and International Affairs from Columbia University, then started her career at NBC in New York. She returned to Colombia in 1999 to work for the Associated Press, covering internal conflict at one of the peaks of violence. She has produced four feature-length documentaries and more than a dozen shorts since then. Granted unprecedented access to the peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, Cuba, her documentary The Negotiation was released in November 2018.