#VoicesOfChange: A military officer who recognizes the humanity of his enemy

Map of wounded Colombia. Artist: Cr.Ra. Velásquez. Photo used with his permission.

This is the fourth interview within the series #VoicesOfChange

One of Colombia's attempts to overcome its context of violence has been the agreement signed at the end of 2016 between the Government and the insurgent group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to put an end to the internal conflict fought between them since 1960. Among the mechanisms for transitional justice designed in the negotiations, the two parties opted to build an inclusive, complex, and plural historical memory.

This emphasis on memory is fraught with tensions, to the point of being considered an extension of the war—a situation in which society is polarized. However, voices of change are emerging, such as that of retired Colonel Carlos Arturo Velásquez Peláez, a military officer who stands out for integrating narratives of victims from different sides of the conflict, bringing together ex-combatants who once faced each other in battle.

This is why the different parties to the conflict are recounting their lived experiences, in their dual capacity as victims and victimizers. On the one hand, members of the guerrilla were forcibly recruited even as children, while thousands of military personnel suffered mutilations after falling into landmines, or were tortured or disappeared. According to data from the government organization National Center of Historical Memory (CNMH), the more than 50-year war with the FARC has left more than nine million victims, of which 288,421 are military personnel.

Kelly Chaib: What motivated you to support the construction of the historical memory of the Armed Forces?

Velásquez: El soldado que cayó en la mina, el papá del soldado que lo desaparecieron, el secuestrado, el que fue violado sexualmente, y que no son reconocidos como sujetos de derechos. ¿Quién cuenta esas historias? Así que dediqué mis esfuerzos a cuidar los archivos, escribir parte de esa memoria, impulsar la construcción de monumentos y la inscripción de nuestras víctimas.

Velásquez: The soldier who fell on the mine, the father of the soldier who was disappeared, the kidnapped one, the one who was sexually violated, and those whose rights are not recognized. Who tells these stories? So I dedicated my efforts to taking care of the archives, writing part of that memory, and promoting the construction of monuments and the inscription of our victims.

KC: How was the process of integrating victims from other sectors, victims who were also victimizers against members of the regular forces, into your initiatives? 

CR.V: Empecé la construcción de la memoria histórica en las FFMM con una sola carpeta yo sólo, para proteger el honor y la dignidad de la institución hacia afuera y en 2013 logré gestionar la creación del Centro de Memoria Histórica Militar. Allí evidencié un infra reconocimiento a las víctimas militares, por lo que involucramos a la sociedad civil en nuestra construcción. Participamos en iniciativas del CNMH como “Esa mina lleva mi nombre”, y talleres con víctimas en regiones como Cúcuta, La Macarena, Tumaco, Urabá y los Montes de María.

Fue en estos ejercicios que tuve la oportunidad de escuchar víctimas y otros actores sociales y políticos ajenos a las FFMM, testimonios y narrativas que me mostraron otro dolor. Hablando con estas personas que pasan por procesos de desarme me di cuenta que también son seres humanos, lloran, se enamoran, son campesinos, personas común y corriente que por muchas circunstancias cayeron en una guerra injusta. Además, me enteré de crímenes cometidos por militares que no podemos negar ni mucho menos ocultar, y por el contrario, por los que hay que pedir perdón. 

Fue así que el objetivo de mis iniciativas para la construcción de memoria se transformó para evidenciar los efectos del conflicto armado en Colombia para todos los sectores. El Proyecto Victus de Reconciliación ha sido la máxima expresión de esa meta. Se trata de una obra de teatro que creamos junto a una reconocida actriz y directora colombiana, y que pone en escena a militares, ex guerrilleros, ex paramilitares, y víctimas de unos y de otros. Victus logró la reconciliación de 29 colombianos y sueño con que sea un multiplicador en todo el país.

CR.V: I started building the historical memory of the Armed Forces with a single folder by myself, to protect the outward honor and dignity of the institution, and in 2013 I managed the creation of the Military Historical Memory Center. There I witnessed an underrecognition of military victims, so we involved civil society in our project. We participated in CNMH initiatives such as “That mine bears my name,” and workshops with victims in regions such as Cúcuta, La Macarena, Tumaco, Urabá and Montes de María.

It was in these exercises that I had the opportunity to listen to victims and other social and political actors outside the Armed Forces, testimonies and narratives that showed me another pain. Talking to these people going through disarmament processes, I realized that they are also human beings, they cry, they fall in love, they are peasants, ordinary people who for many reasons fell into an unjust war. In addition, I learned of crimes committed by the military that we cannot deny, much less hide, and on the contrary, for which we must ask forgiveness.

Thus, the objective of my memory-building initiatives was transformed to highlight the effects of the armed conflict in Colombia across all sectors. The Victus Reconciliation Project has been the ultimate expression of that goal. It is a stage play that we created together with a well-known Colombian actress and director, which puts on stage soldiers, ex-guerrillas, ex-paramilitaries, and victims of one or the other. Victus achieved the reconciliation of 29 Colombians and I dream that it will be a multiplying force throughout the country.

Photo of Cr.V Velásquez, used with his permission.

KC: What are the main challenges you have faced in the development of inclusive historical memory initiatives?

Cr.V: El concepto de víctima militar no se entiende ni al interior, ni fuera de las FFMM. La propia institución no ha establecido todos los mecanismos para reparar integralmente a sus miembros, especialmente aquellos que han sufrido daños psicológicos. Y al exterior, la sociedad civil y empresarios en las regiones no han entendido que los militares víctimas del conflicto merecen atención y reparación, por el contrario, en escenarios de encuentros de víctimas los representantes de las FFMM son atacados. 

Pero creo que el mayor desafío y al mismo tiempo lo más importante, es la garantía de no-repetición, decirnos la verdad, reconocer los diseños institucionales que hicieron daño, para que no vuelvan a ocurrir atrocidades como los mal llamados “falsos positivos [ed: Muertes presentadas ilegítimamente por las FFMM como bajas en combate entre 2002 y 2008. La Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz determinó que en Colombia, al menos 6.402 personas fueron víctimas de este crimen]. Parece inaudito, pero se siguen presentando casos de militares actuando en contra de la ley, incluso ahora que las FFMM están cuestionadas por la justicia transicional nacional y por la Corte Penal Internacional. Eso indica que hay mucho que corregir, en la incorporación, en el desarrollo de las operaciones, en el manejo administrativo, pero principalmente develar el currículo oculto, ese que premia la “viveza” [ed: Actos ilegales que se justifican socialmente por considerarse la única forma de alcanzar la libertad individual ante el abandono estatal].

Cr.V: The concept of military victim is not understood either inside or outside the Armed Forces. The institution itself has not established the necessary mechanisms to fully heal its members, especially those who have suffered psychological damage. And outside, civil society and businessmen throughout the country have not understood that the military victims of the conflict deserve attention and healing; on the contrary, in victims’ meetings, the representatives of the Armed Forces are attacked.

But I believe that the greatest challenge, and at the same time the most important aspect, is the guarantee of non-repetition, telling us the truth, recognizing the institutional designs that did harm, so that atrocities such as the misnamed “false positives” do not happen again [ed: Deaths falsely presented by the Armed Forces as combat casualties between 2002 and 2008. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace determined that in Colombia, at least 6,402 people were victims of this crime]. It seems outrageous, but there continue to be cases of the military acting against the law, even now that the Armed Forces are being questioned by the national transitional justice system and the International Criminal Court. This indicates that there is much to correct, in recruitment, in the development of operations, and in administrative management, but mainly to unveil the hidden agenda that rewards “viveza” [ed: Illegal acts that are socially justified as the only way to achieve individual freedom in the face of state abandonment].

KC: How do you see the reconciliation process at present?

Cr.V: Los políticos no han entendido que las FFMM son una herramienta para lograr el desarrollo y la seguridad en las regiones. Los militares tienen un conocimiento profundo de los territorios en donde se desarrollaron las hostilidades, nadie más que nosotros sabemos de los problemas de la comunidad y tenemos las capacidades para apoyar esa reconstrucción. Ante la falta de gobernabilidad otros actores armados retoman el control de esos territorios, iniciando un nuevo círculo de violencia. 

Cr.V: Politicians have not understood that the Armed Forces are a tool to achieve development and security in the country. The military has a deep knowledge of the territories where the hostilities took place. No one but us knows the problems of the community and we have the capabilities to support this reconstruction. In the absence of governance, other armed groups retake control of these territories, initiating a new cycle of violence.

KC: This leads me to the following question: How can you describe the experience of working on post-conflict issues in a country where hostilities are still ongoing?

Cr.V: La situación colombiana es compleja, especialmente para las FFMM que deben garantizar procesos de postconflicto con grupos que se han desmovilizado, al tiempo que se enfrentan con otros actores armados. El nivel de dificultad se incremente porque en Colombia no existe una división funcional entre la policía y las FFMM. Además, los conductores políticos no se responsabilizan del uso que hacen de la fuerza, y exigen a los militares enfrentarse a toda clase de grupos armados sin lineamientos claros. 

Personalmente esta dualidad del contexto me obliga a trabajar en dos frentes, la visibilización de las víctimas militares, y la lucha por la no repetición. En la memoria histórica están las lecciones aprendidas. Como docente de Escuelas Militares le presento a mis alumnos, soldados que aún están en territorios en guerra, el pasado inmediato, para que no cometan los mismos errores. 

Cr.V: The Colombian situation is complex, especially for the Armed Forces, which must guarantee post-conflict processes with groups that have demobilized, while at the same time confronting other armed actors. The level of difficulty increases because in Colombia there is no functional distinction between the police and the Armed Forces. In addition, political leaders do not take responsibility for their use of force, and require the military to confront all kinds of armed groups without clear guidelines.

Personally, this duality of the context forces me to work on two fronts: making military victims visible, and struggling for non-repetition. There are lessons to be learned in historical memory. As a teacher in military schools, I present the immediate past to my students, who are soldiers still in war zones, so that they do not make the same mistakes.

KC: What motivates you to continue building historical memory from the Armed Forces?

Cr.V: Me preocupa que para la historia quede un relato único de las FFMM, porque no todos fuimos bandidos. Por ejemplo, cifras de la Defensoría Militar indican que entre 2002 y 2008 se desarrollaron 8 millones de operaciones militares, las cuales generarían 6402 falsos positivos. Estas cifras indican que fue el 0.08% de casos en que militares criminales actuaron y deben responder. Mi deseo es que mis nietos, si los llego a tener, sepan que yo hice la tarea bien, tanto en la institución como en mi condición personal.

Cr.V: I am concerned that history might tell a single story of the Armed Forces, because not all of us were bandits. For example, figures from the Military Defense Office indicate that between 2002 and 2008 there were 8 million military operations, which generated 6402 false positives. These figures indicate that there were 0.08% of cases in which military criminals acted and should be held accountable. My wish is that my grandchildren, if I have them, know that I did my duty well, both in the institution and in my personal life.

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