Building peace in Colombia
21 September 2020
Monday 21 September is the International Day of Peace. In Colombia, CAFOD’s partner, Programme Development and Peace (PDP), is working together with 34 secondary schools, youth groups, women’s groups and local authorities to promote a culture of peace and reconciliation.
Father Joaquin is warm, friendly and cares deeply about young people. “There has been such a painful experience of displacement, murders and massacres,” says Father Joaquin, a Jesuit priest living in Magdalena Medio in western Colombia. “Young people are all victims of the armed conflict in one way or another, through their families or neighbours – especially in the countryside.”
With an internal armed conflict lasting over 50 years, many Colombians know violence first-hand. More than 280,000 people have been killed in the conflict between Colombian government forces, left-wing guerrillas and paramilitary groups. The peace agreement signed by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed forces in 2016 marked a historic step towards peace.
However, in Magdalena Medio and other areas of Colombia, the violence sadly continues.
“The situation in Magdalena Media has been particularly bad because there have been guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and now gangs who want to control drug trafficking, mining and local communities,” explains Father Joaquin.
Multiple generations have grown up knowing only violence. It has become a normal way of life here. Violence is not limited to armed groups; it is also a way for neighbours, school children and even family members to solve problems.
“An important aspect of peacebuilding is related to education and awareness raising,” continues Father Joaquin. "This means becoming aware that a person plays a key role in respecting life, human rights, values, building a family and taking care of children. All these things are part of a dignified life.”
Promoting a culture of peace
To break the cycle of violence experienced by so many in Magdalena Medio, Father Joaquin and CAFOD’s partner Programme Development and Peace (PDP) are working together with 34 secondary schools, youth groups and women’s groups and local authorities to promote a culture of peace and reconciliation.
This three-year peacebuilding project is called Hands On Magdalena Medio. It is a joint-funded project by CAFOD supporters, our partner PDP and the European Union, aiming to promote a change in attitudes and behaviours, in the hope that communities will become more tolerant and peaceful.
“We give workshops to young people, teachers and parents about different topics that are interesting for young people,” says Father Joaquin. “We invite teachers to look at challenging themes like relationships between students, between men and women, between children and their parents, and problems like drug addiction.”
In these workshops, young people learn about the importance of dialogue, listening and communication. They also get to explore what “living together peacefully” means to them.
Students learn about the many different forms of violence that exist – physical, psychological and violence against women. For communities who have normalised violence over a number of years, learning to recognise what violence actually is marks an important first step.
“Peace is about being aware of respecting others and respecting life,” says Father Joaquin.
A brighter future
The hope is that by planning ahead and seeing a brighter future for themselves, young people will be less likely to join armed groups or get involved in drugs and violence. Father Joaquin is hopeful about the role of young people in securing a long-lasting peace across Colombia: “What I see with young people today is that they reject all forms of armed violence.”
Father Joaquin strongly believes that the Church and people’s faith play a key role in building peace in the Magdalena Medio region:
“From a spiritual perspective, when one speaks of peace it is essential that a person has an inner peace, a peace with nature, with others and with God. My faith has strengthened and enlightened me to work in the region and look for new ways to encourage the people of Magdalena Medio to live a true peace.
"The Church wants reconciliation to be encouraged and lived out. It wants peace to be effective, felt and alive.”