The prisoners would be arriving soon and Adriana Combita, like a young teacher preparing to greet a new class, was nervous. This was not the first time that Combita, 26, had led a peacebuilding training with soldiers convicted of war-related crimes. But these were senior officers, commanders with master’s degrees, military officials who had lived abroad.

police station military base Puente Aranda

As they entered the classroom on the Puente Aranda military base in central Bogotá, some of the prisoners displayed a wary tension. Others slid into their seats and leaned back, looking relaxed. The 16 men made small talk while scanning the room to see who had shown up. Four of them still wore military fatigues. The rest were dressed in civilian clothing, a sign that the military or national police had severed them from service because of the severity of their crimes. Combita reviewed her agenda and taped diagrams on a white board.

The majority of the prisoners didn’t know what to expect, but they did know why they volunteered to be here: Before long, they will be given the option to tell their stories to a tribunal of magistrates established under the peace accords that ended 52 years of war between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC.) This classroom is a place to learn how to tell it.

The tribunal, which could recommend reduced sentences for the prisoners in exchange for the complete truth, forms part of an innovative transitional justice system known as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). Its mandate is to investigate and document serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in the armed conflict, and to prosecute, judge and sanction the perpetrators of those crimes. The JEP is also responsible for presenting Colombian society with the truth of what happened in the conflict and addressing the rights of victims.  

Its aim is to help reweave Colombia’s social fabric.

Generation Change

Using knowledge and skills derived from the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Generation Change Fellows Program (GCFP), Combita will help the men reflect on their lives and on how their actions in Colombia’s war affected others. They will learn new strategies to communicate and to engage with people from different backgrounds and experiences through channels other than violence.

Combita, whose direct but caring manner sets up an easy rapport with the prisoners, is a youth leader working on prison projects for the Internal Action Foundation. Before her Generation Change experience, she worked mostly with women prisoners, helping them develop entrepreneurship skills that might allow them to earn a living when they’re released. After participating in a training for Generation Change Fellows in March, Combita met a group of women leading trainings for imprisoned fighters from the FARC and a smaller insurgent group, the National Liberation Army. Inspired by those women, and her Generation Change experience, she decided to change her focus to conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

At the military facilities, she is helping to improve the prisoners’ ability to speak about their experiences in the war and to contribute to the JEP’s goals of truth, justice and reparation—in effect, preparing them for the JEP process. The military has given the program welcome access to its prisons.

This first session of the October 23 training lasts well beyond its scheduled two hours. In one structured exercise, Combita asks the men to reflect on the positive and negative aspects of their lives. For 10 minutes they silently draw “rivers” of their lives with positive and negative shorelines.

Many of the men, who range in age from 18 to the mid-50s, discuss their careers as a positive. Negatives include the armed conflict, the death of family members caused by it and their imprisonment. Most talk about “Dios supremo”—God supreme—as an ally throughout their journey and their families as providing stability throughout their sentences. They say the peace process that ended the conflict and the approval of the JEP are positives that they hope will allow them to tell their truth and feel some sense of release.

In other exercises, they talk about the incidents, people and places that shaped the trajectory of their lives and reflect on the experiences that landed them in prison. The objective is, in part, to connect to other people in a new, more human way.

“I know that what we’re doing and talking about today will help me in the future,” said one of the ex-soldiers. “I would have liked to have this type of training when I first arrived in prison. It could have helped me understand my colleagues, to help ourselves be better, understand myself and how I got here.”

FARC and Soldiers

Combita has already held 16 sessions applying GCFP’s lessons on prejudice awareness and reduction, conflict management and leadership development in prisons for women, guerrillas and soldiers and police in Cartagena, Cali, and two other facilities in Bogotá.

Combita developed the prison engagements to help prepare the inmates for the JEP, considered by many the backbone of the peace accords and a critical component of the larger Integrated System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition. Its success will largely depend on the engagement of civil society actors like her.

The JEP will handle the cases of people who participated directly in the armed conflict including military and security personnel and the FARC, though indirect participants may also appear before the JEP voluntarily. In exchange for verifiable full disclosure of all critical facts and complete cooperation with investigations, those accepting responsibility for human rights violations can benefit from reduced and alternative sentences, which may include community service. As of November, more than 1,700 members of the armed forces had applied to go through the JEP, and 3,491 FARC had inscribed as well.

Efforts to establish the JEP have progressed slowly in the first year since the accord with the FARC despite significant resistance from Colombia’s political opposition.

Human Rights Experience

In September, following an exhaustive review process, a selection committee picked 38 judges to lead the judicial mechanism.

Two months later, after Congress added hotly contested amendments to the JEP law including one barring magistrates with human rights experience from participating, a statute detailing the specific mandate and functioning of the program was approved. If it passes muster with the Constitutional Court early next year, the Peace Tribunals may finally become operational as early as the second half of 2018.

In the meantime, Combita and her allies press ahead because the prison engagements are critical to restoring relationships between civil society and the sector and moving Colombia closer to a durable peace.

“Sometimes as men, we have a hard time reflecting on the past, and being okay with crying and letting go, and allowing ourselves to know each other better and grow closer, despite our circumstances,” said one of the prisoners as the session wrapped up. “What we’re doing here is beautiful.”

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