Meet the post-war Colombia youth taking part in this year’s Positive Peace workshops, a joint project by Rotary International and IEP.
“This is the only picture I have of my childhood. I’ve been a worker ever since I was young. Here you see me digging a hole to help build the house where we live now.”
Kevin Vasquez is holding the picture nervously in front of him, introducing himself to a group of thirty young Colombians from all over the country. Still not old, with his 20-years, but new to this kind of initiative, he has come a long way to participate in this Positive Peace Workshop.
His family struggled to give him education as they were displaced by the conflict from Buenaventura, on the Pacific coast, to Ciudad Bolivar, a deprived neighbourhood in Bogotá, the capital city.
“We had to leave our house very quickly when my uncle was murdered,” explains Kevin, his bright eyes shy under a blue cap.
He is now leading an initiative to learn and teach history called “Paza la paz” (pass the peace). Young people in his neighbourhood use music and theatre to pass along the lessons from the long Colombian conflict, based on their family stories.
It is a way of getting to understand the traumas their parents have experienced. They would like these stories to find a voice in the history of the conflict.
More than two years after the signature of the peace accord, the country is in effect trying to come to terms with violence.
But 52-years of a conflict with hundreds of related and overlapping fronts won’t come to an end quickly. While the guns have fallen silent – at least some of them – the peace remains to be built.
At the country level, there is a Truth Commission, a system for transitional justice, special investigations, and several programmes for coca substitution and the reintegration of guerilla fighters. There are debates, impatience, and controversies. There are lots of institutions, but still so many vacuums.
At another level, here in the workshop room, there is more than anything a group of youths who are taking action to build the Colombia they dream of. Dynamic, creative, hard-working leaders who are creating hope, a safeguard against falling back into the despair of violence they’ve all experienced one way or another.
They come from five different regions, and many more cities and towns, have all shades of skin and very diverse economic backgrounds. Rotary, The Institute for Economics & Peace and the YMCA have worked to bring them together in this 3-day leadership training programme.
They were selected during five regional workshops where they stood out as key actors for local and national peace projects.
It is more than just a workshop, says Sebastian Cruz from Cali, “it’s a very rare opportunity to transcend these invisible barriers” drawn by the conflict and the social classes.
So does think Maria Cristina Cifuentes, member of the Rotaract Club of Tunja, a city 140 km north of Bogotá. A very active 24-year-old woman, she is also involved in Green Rotary, a woman round-table and a committee against gender-based violence at her city level, as well as youth political bodies.
She has pushed forward a reform for the attention of victims of gender-based violence, making it quicker and easier to receive legal and psychological support, for example.
Getting to know other young people has been eye opening during the weekend. “I am looking at Cali through different eyes, for example. What we see on TV is always about criminal gangs and shootings, but now I know young people who are volunteering for peace there,” says Maria Cristina.
Not only reinforcing her network, the series of regional and national workshops have also changed her vision of peace: “I thought it was just the absence of war, but I grew to realise it takes much more than just that.”
Bringing attitudes, institutions, and structures that sustain peaceful societies in the longer term is a much more difficult task.
One of the eight pillars of Positive Peace, as defined by The Institute for Economics & Peace, is the acceptance of the rights of others. It is not an easy task with the level of distrust and a perceived high criminality rate in the Colombian society.
Through her role in the Rotaract of Tunja, Maria Cristina has helped train students to civic participation and peaceful expression, collaborating with psychologists.
Along with five other people from Tunja, she is now looking forward to expanding this programme to close to 200 post-war youths from 11 to 20-years-old.
Scaling-up their initiative is crucial to participants in the positive peace workshop. Over three days, they learn how to identify allies in existing institutions, how to replicate projects over space and time, and how to apply the pillars of positive peace better.
Juan Diego Ortiz, another participant from Neiva, is already dreaming big. Along with other Rotaract members, they have designed a project to meet with prisoners in a local jail who committed minor crimes.
They seek to understand what they need to take on a new course in life. “We would like to match them with enterprises for them to get training if they want, which could lead to jobs.”
On her side, Geraldine Villada, has already changed the course of her family history considerably.
Born of a mother addicted to drugs, she had to “cure her own trauma,” as she puts it before she could find a role model. “I know who I want to become now,” she says.
The project she is leading for Positive Peace is about the social leaders who were murdered in her community in Pereira. Geraldine cried when she was selected for the workshop, she also cries when she receives her certificate at the end of the weekend.
She is not afraid of her emotions, she says, she is empowered by them: “I know that my deep empathy is a blessing. I learn so much by taking others’ perspective. I want to use that for peace.”
As soon as Geraldine finishes the last activity for the weekend, she joins the dynamic group right outside the hotel where the workshop took place. Everyone smiles for the picture being taken, she laughs.
A plane is taking off in the nearby airport, and her eyes follow it into the sky. “I’m taking all of this back with me.”
Learn more about the Positive Peace workshops across post-war Colombia.