A pot boils over an outdoor wood fire at a resting place in Serranía del Perijá, in Colombia’s mountainous rural north. More than a hundred people, including former fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group known as the FARC, their families and local residents, as well as soldiers from the Colombian National Army, work together on the edge of a cliff.
They are carrying three-inch-diameter hoses across nearly nine kilometers of steep terrain as part of a project supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to improve water supplies.
It took months of hard work to lift the hose, put it in place, bury it and connect it to a local river that provides a reliable supply of water.
“The most beautiful thing I remember was the way the army, our former adversary, community, ex-rebels and local authorities worked together, regardless of the past that separated us.” says Yarledys Olaya, a Barí indigenous woman who spent 20 years fighting for the now-defunct FARC rebel group.
FARC guerrillas fought a half-century civil war against Colombian authorities, which officially ended with the signing of a historic Final Peace Agreement in 2016.
A new life in a pleasant land
Yarledys Olaya is one of some 13,000 ex-combatants who have committed themselves to peace in Colombia and started a new life in places like Tierra Grata.
“I imagine my future here; I imagine myself getting older,” she says. “This process was not easy. In the past, we have seen our comrades killed. But personally, allowed me to start my family, be able to spend time with them and open my home to my daughters.
“That’s why we want to continue building and betting on peace. Not just for the rebels who were reintegrated into society, but for a collective peace for the country.”
In the nearby town of San José de Oriente, local people feared that when ex-combatants arrived in the region, violence would resume, but minds changed when they brought only peace and a willingness to work on community projects.
Yarledys Olaya arrived in Tierra Grata in November 2016 aboard a truck along with 120 other guerrillas, most of them armed. She was wearing a camouflage uniform, boots, a black T-shirt and carried a backpack and a rifle over her shoulder; she covered her face with a green scarf without wanting to be identified.
“There was a lot of mistrust. I felt that we were reserved, moody, and that local people looked at us differently.” Two months earlier, the Peace Agreement between the government and the FARC had been signed.
“This was not a personal decision, it was a collective decision,” she says. “I thought, let’s continue, but live life differently. The good thing is that I didn’t have to see my teammates fall anymore, which is normal during a war”.
It was an isolated spot; an old farmhouse stood beside dense vegetation, including the native frailejones plant. A piece of land had been cleared to make way for the construction of a reintegration camp; around, there were personnel from the Colombian army and police.
In a nearby area, the United Nations had erected tents where experts who had monitored the ceasefire would verify the deposition of weapons. Between March and September 2017, the UN mission in Colombia received 8,994 weapons from the FARC across the country, including Tierra Grata.
Six months were spent building the camp which provided 158 lodgings. Ex-combatants were supposed to undergo a reintegration process there and then leave for a more permanent location, but most of them had nowhere to go and so they stayed.
Daughters of War and Peace
Today, Tierra Grata is a formalized village, inhabited by about 300 people, including ex-combatants and family members. Some were born there, and others joined their families.
Yarledys Olaya left her newborn, Yacana, with a relative when she joined the FARC and was reunited two months after arriving in Tierra Grata. Two years later, she gave birth to another daughter, Yaquelín, one of 65 children born in the new settlement.
“Yacana is my daughter of war, and Yaquelín is my daughter of peace,” she says.
Yarledys Olaya continues to work on community projects, building permanent structures and bringing water and electricity to the village. “As women during the war, we played a pivotal role,” she says, “and now, in this new moment, we are helping to build peace., because we feel that this process is ours; That’s why we’re willing to contribute our last sweat to this future.”
SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
- Sustainable Development Goal 16 recognizes that conflict, insecurity, weak institutions and limited access to justice remain a significant threat to sustainable development.
- It aims to reduce all forms of violence and deaths caused by such violence. It focuses on ending the abuse, exploitation, torture and trafficking of children.
- The UN Verification Mission in Colombia was established by the UN Security Council in 2017 to support the peace process in Colombia.
- It has worked closely with national authorities and ex-combatants to advance progress on reintegration and security-related issues.