viernes, 25 de octubre de 2013

Listening to Others: Communication as a Possibility of Reconciliation in Colombia

Sixteen years – almost two decades – I have spent traveling this country from one end to the other and into the farthest corners where nothing is easy, everything is scarce, and people become invisible both to themselves and to others. These are places, where even words are a privilege that only a few can afford. I have spent years and years helping communities make radio programs. Listening to hundreds of stories, everyday and seemingly insignificant stories, in all of the accents, colors and flavors that this country is able to produce. 

Foto: Caracola Consultores
Foto: Caracola Consultores

Many paths trodden, enough to stop, look back and wonder about lessons learned. Everything has to do with communication. With the magic act of putting ourselves in someone else's shoes and, for one moment, taking their stories, their problems, their joys, their sorrows and their dreams, as our own. That is what communication is in its deepest sense, the powerful ability to generate empathy and, once there, in the place of the other, to dare to dialogue, and seek consensus, but also to be open to deliberation and dissagreement and, of course, to reconciliation and solidarity. Yes, that is what it is all about: using words to transform and the willingness to be transformed in the process.

Foto: Diego Santamaría para Caracola Consultores
Today I can say with absolute certainty that the thing I know best in life is listening. Ever since I was a child I have been trained to hear, to decipher and interpret musical sounds; and in the last 18 years I have been learning the difficult task of listening to others, listening to other voices and then doing everything possible for their words to be heard by even more people and to acquire the immense power to change, for better, the lives of others. That is what my work is all about; that is what we do in Caracola, the consulting firm that my partner, Jeanine, and I founded seven years ago. We work so that communities can recount their stories… and be taken into account. It is our slogan, our particular way of assuming and understanding communication. 

Foto: Caracola Consultores
Foto: Caracola Consultores
Foto: Caracola Consultores
There are some stories that are repeated again and again over the years. We have heard stories a thousand times about how people have had to abandon their lands fleeing violence consciously and deliberately caused by others. We have heard a thousand times about neglect, in places where territory becomes huge and seems to overwhelm the capacity of a state that, at the margin, becomes tiny and insignificant. But we have also heard stories about public officials who, against everything, have done everything possible to bring some institutional presence to the furthest corners of the country. We have heard stories about communities that have found the most unusual and creative ways of dealing with fear and violence, who have managed to turn joy, music, food and every moment of daily life into a strong statement of hope for life.

Foto: Caracola Consultores
We have heard the voices of those who have been victims of all possible forms of violence. But we also have heard the voices of people who have been part of armed groups and, consciously and deliberately, have produced tears and infinite suffering to others.

The day when, for the first time, I faced the tough challenge of listening to the victimizers, with all that it implies to listen, throwing away my own anger and leaving open the possibility of being transformed by their stories, I understood the enormous potential of communication in reconciliation. In principle I knew it, I had read it in the words of the pacifist sages and scholars at the time I worked on my dissertation. Hundreds of pages, thousand of wise words talking about the fundamental importance of creating spaces of communication between different parties to rebuild broken relationships and to build peace. But only until that day did I understand what it meant.

Foto: Gemma Granados para Caracola Consultores
I'm an excombatant of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia,” (AUC for its acronym in Spanish) said the man firmly, almost defiantly. “I demobilized but not because I have decided to, someone else decided for me, in the same way that years ago someone decided that I had to become paramilitary.” How difficult to listen to him! It was impossible not to think of the thousands of victims robbed and outraged while that man was talking, staring without looking at anyone in particular. It was impossible not to feel hatred, the same hatred that blinds and prevents us from seeing and hearing beyond the evidence. “I didn’t choose to be part of and leave the AUC forces,” says the man, “but now I'm demobilized and I can decide to stay on this side and start a new life.” It was at that moment that I began to listen seriously. I undertood that in the simple words of that warrior was nested the remote possibility of a peaceful future for all of us.

What happened to me, also happened to the other people who were participating in that workshop. Members of communities hit by violence, poverty and discrimination, people who had accepted the difficult challenge of sitting at the same table to work with excombatants because they saw in that act the remote possibility of a future at peace.

Thus began one of the toughest challenges of my professional and personal life. For one year, in 2008, we were listening attentively to stories of men and women who had fought in the ranks of the guerrilla and the paramilitary forces. Stories that were reflected by our working team and the Fundación Imaginario (Imaginary Foundation) team in a series of 40 radio and 14 television programs. Stories were also told in the context of our workshops by the demobilized people themselves as well as the people who were open to receiving them as members of their communities.

Foto: Caracola Consultores

 In our professional role, Jeanine and I assume the management of content for both radio and television projects. We had to make many decisions in order to focus these stories. We knew very well that for years news reports have privileged the voices and perspectives of the victimizers. Such is the media fascination with violence that the media makes visible, almost exclusively, the acts of the perpetrators, their communications, their voices and themselves as warriors. The other perspective, from communities that resist peacefully in the midst of violence, which have suffered immeasurably and have been victimized, is scarcely included in the news. The few times that they appear in the news, communities are made visible only in their victimization and associated only with violence. This approach stigmatizes and simplifies the lives of people who have names, a past, a present and a very clear perspective about the future they want to build.

The challenge was not easy. What kind of things should be made visible? How could we guide the stories to actually contribute to coexistence and peace building? The risks were many, we could easily end up reinforcing the prospect of violence and even, in the worst case scenario, justifying heinous acts, disrespecting victimized communities and fueling feelings of revenge.
Foto: Gemma Granados para Caracola Consultores

We built a framework of what should be highlighted and what we wanted to focus on. We decided to focus on those stories that showed the absurdity of violence, both for victims and for the perpetrators themselves. We prioritized those testimonies that warned young people about the mistake of becoming part of the ranks of the armed groups, as well as those who invited other fighters to lay down arms. We emphasized experiences in which both the demobilized and the receiving communities were working together showing that, though difficult, it is possible to think of this possibility.

As a part of the workshops we directed the construction of stories that showed different perspectives of the various sectors related to the complex reality of living and coexisting with people who had been fighters. We formed joint working groups where demobilized and people of comminities were mixed. During the four days of the workshops, people on each team were asked to listen to each other and they had to reach agreement about the stories they wanted to tell and how they wanted to tell them.

We were aware that the demobilization and reintegration process took place in the midst of conflict and not in the ideal situation of post-conflict, so we were aware of the impossibility and undesirability of promoting dialogue between ex-combatants and communities who had been victimized directly by them. It was not the right time, the victims barely began the long and complex road for legal, administrative and social recognition. They began to claim space to tell their own version of events in which they were victimizade and, rightly, demanded from perpetrators and from the state, first of all, truth, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition before thinking about the possibility of dialogue.

It was not the right time, and it still is not. The conflict is still alive, its causes have not been addressed, the territories are still in dispute and many of the members demobilized from AUC have returned to arms, now as Emerging Criminal Gangs (BACRIM for its acronym in Spanish). The situation of demobilized members of the insurgent FARC are different but equally complex; those who have laid down their arms, but have done so individually, not as part of a negotiation process with the government; those who have demobilized have done so motivated by a strong and inner conviction about stopping violence, despite the risk that this desertion represents for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. For the guerrilla forces, desertion is a mistake that must be paid for with one’s life. This being so it was impossible, and still is, to promote communication spaces between victimized communities and ex-combatants as recommended by those who have studied peace building processes in deeply divided societies like ours. It was not the right time then, the time has not yet come.

The conclusion was clear to us: demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants in the midst of conflict is a complex process that is full of all the imperfections inherent in trying to build peace in the midst of war. Even so, that imperfect and complex process coupled with the experience of years of working with communities who have lived close to the effects of armed conflict, allows us to re-confirm that there is – in communication – a potential to generate dialogues that allow us to put ourselves in one another's place and understand, but not necessarily accept, their reasons: their reasons for violence, their reasons for resistance, their reasons for skepticism and their reasons for making peace a way of life and future. Faced with the remote possibility of a negotiated solution to the armed conflict, thinking of communication as a stage for reconciliation, becomes an ethical imperative for all of us who work in this field. It involves learning and teaching listening, stripping ourselves of our own anger and resentment, which are legitimate, no doubt, since they are born of deeply painful experiences in all cases, but should be converted into other kinds of feelings and the knowledge to move towards a future in which everyone fits.

After that experience in 2008, we never went back to work with the demobilized, but a year later we had the opportunity to get closer to another world virtually unknown to us. We developed a training proccess for radio managers and programmers for military stations which are in areas where military operations are conducted. The aim was to focus on the programming of these stations to promote human rights and demobilization. 

Foto: Caracola Consultores
What was surprising in that experience was to discover a moderate perspective from some officers and soldiers about the armed conflict in Colombia. “It is clear to me that they (the guerrilla) are the same as us,” said a woman, an officer who directed the network of military stations.“Country boys who ended up there, could have ended up here, like any of us. And it hurts to know that we are killing each other instead of helping each other. I think, and I want to show, that with the radio sations, and with the persuasive power of words, we have a much more effective weapon that guns. For every boy that we convince to get out to the ranks of the guerrilla and for every child that we convince not to join the armed groups, we are saving not only their lives, but the lives of a lot of people caught in this madness of war,” the officer told us while we looked perplexed. Yes, this is not the widespread view, and certainly not the view of those who make war decisions. And, of course, this is not the view of those military officers who have had relationships with illegal armed groups with impunity and have systematically violated human rights of thousands of people. But it is a view shared by soldiers who are convinced of the need to build peace and the importance of communication in this process. This is a view that is not obvious to most people and it is necessary to share, knowledge and understanding.

Foto: Caracola Consultores

To complete the facets of a prism as complex as the reality that surrounds us, from 2010 up to now, we have had the opportunity to work with displaced communities, the victims, that are returning to their land, as part of a partnership we have with our old friends from the Montes de María Communication Group. It is a process that seeks to strengthen the Schools of Storytellers of Memory in the region of Montes de María and Serranía of Perijá. 
Foto: Caracola Consultores
These schools have formed communication groups whose mission is to turn memories into stories that can be shared with communities and wider audiences. For some years we accompanied the communication groups in the building of their communication projects, in defining the issues and approaches so these stories can be connected with social processes of NGOs about the claim of land rights and reparation for victims.

Again, the role of communication in peacebuilding processes is evident while providing spaces for meeting, dialogue and deliberation of communities around the most sensitive issues for the region. Spaces are created and opened to tell stories about what happened before, during and after massacres in the early 2000s, culture, territory, environment, agro-industrial projects and the type of development that they want to propose to the region. All subjects, all voices. Voices of rural communities who stand up straight with “their feet on the ground,” as they say themselves, and are not willing to let anyone, anymore, decide for them about their lives and their future.

Foto: Caracola Consultores

Foto: Caracola Consultores
Having had the opportunity to listen to all of these voices over the years reassures me, every day, in my personal choice and my commitment to communication as a scenario of expression and dialogue. Many years, many miles traveled and many voices heard with frank willingness to let me be transformed by the words and stories of hundreds of men and women, who, in their diversity, express the complexity of my country. I can no longer be the same person, and I cannot see life without hearing their voices. So I think that the possibility of peace and reconciliation is not even an option, it is our only way forward. Muchas gracias.

Foto: Alirio González para Caracola Consultores

5 comentarios:

  1. This is an important initiative for the strengthening of storytelling and narrative in settings of intractable conflict.

  2. Thanks for coming, thanks for let your comment... and thanks for your work in colombian peace building

  3. Excellente texto, Tatiana; qué habilidad para poner en palabras procesos tan complejos.

  4. Clemencia muchas gracias por tu visita... son tantas cosas las que hemos oido en este trabajo... tan complejas y a veces tan contradictorias como la vida misma...ojalá yo pueda contarlas cada vez mejor. Un abrazo y gracias de nuevo por tu entusiasmo.

  5. Hola compi dela cesta de la bicicleta,a menudo entrevisto a ciclistas, pero por la linea de cercanías Vallecas- Alcalá del Henares, pero además también entrevisto a páginas como esta , ¿te gustaría responderme unas preguntas?:
    1-¿usas la bici a diario?
    2-cuantos km haces más o menos?
    3-¿desde cuando?
    4-¿que te ha aportado la bici?
    5-¿que opinas del carril-bici?
    6-¿casco obligatorio si o no?¿por que?
    7-¿vías a treinta km por hora si o no?¿por que?
    8-¿que harías en favor del ciclismo urbano si fueses un alto ejecutivo?
    9-¿como ves la relación entre transporte público y la bici?

    Puedes responderme con un comentario en mi blog( o en mi correo :
    un saludo desde Vallecas


La Misión

Una casualidad hizo posible que la vida continuara aquel 15 de abril de 1993; pero después de esa nube espesa de polvo ya nada sería igual. ...