Treaty signed by Colombian government and rebel leaders (courtesy the Presidency of the Republic of Colombia)
It’s hard to stand in a place like Syria, see the devastation, and believe the fighting will ever stop. Not after five-and-a-half years of bloodshed and more broken ceasefires that anyone can remember.
It’s hard to look at a place like Iraq and see how it could ever be put back together. Even as the tide begins to turn against ISIS, even as more territory is liberated, parts of the country seem more divided than ever. If anything, sectarian fault lines run even deeper. Shia versus Sunni, Arab versus Kurd, minority versus majority.
Some days, it’s hard to believe that peace can prevail, that violence won’t have the last word.
But something happened this week to remind us why we shouldn’t give up on peace. It was a particularly momentous event, though it may have gotten lost in the wall-to-wall coverage of the US presidential debate and its aftermath. But its significance should not be lost on us.
Because this week, there is one less major conflict in the world.
Nearly a quarter million people died in the long, bitter war between the government of Colombia and rebel groups, notably FARC. It was the last armed conflict in South America. Thousands of civilians were abducted. An estimated 5 million people fled their homes during the 52-year-long battle.
That’s not a typo. The conflict in Colombia dragged on for more than half a century. But this week, the government and the country’s largest rebel movement laid down their arms and signed a historic peace agreement, putting "the war-weary nation on the path to reconciliation."
During a ceremony in Cartagena, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos shared the stage with his former enemy, FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, also known as Timochenko. At one point, Santos took a dove-shaped pin that he’s worn for years and gave it to Londono, who pinned it to his own shirt. The two men then signed a peace accord using pens made from shells that had been fired during the conflict.
In Colombia this week, instruments of death became instruments of peace.
We believe the same can happen in places like Syria, Iraq, and a thousand others where conflict and death reign.
None of which is to suggest peace will come to these places easily or quickly. We're no closer to peace in Syria today than we were a year ago... or two years ago. In neighboring Iraq, a military victory against ISIS will not, by itself, bring about the kind of reconciliation we desperately long to see.
The moral arc of the universe is indeed long, Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us. "But it bends toward justice." And, we hope, toward peace.
That was certainly true in Colombia this week. "This is something I waited for my whole life," a former rebel said, "that I dreamed of every day."
Peace did not come quickly to this war-torn country—but this week, it came at last. And that gives us hope.
Update: On October 2, voters narrowly rejected the peace deal, with less than half of one percent separating the "no" and "yes" votes in a countrywide referendum. Many who opposed the deal felt it was too lenient toward rebel fighters. Areas that saw the most violence during the 52-year conflict generally voted in favor of the deal. After the vote, government and rebel leaders reiterated their commitment to the peace process. The Colombian president vowed to "continue the search for peace until the last moment of my mandate," while the rebel group's leader repeated his disavowal of violence, saying that "peace will triumph."