Colombia: asking for my son's forgiveness
09 July 2014

A JRS activity for children in Colombia. (Jesuit Refugee Service)
Reconciliation is a hope, a new opportunity for us and our children. Reconciliation is the hope that they can enjoy what we have been unable to enjoy.
Bogota, 9 July 2014 – "How many times I have asked for my son's forgiveness. How often I have cried with him... and so many other times alone. How wrong I have been! I thought that by taking up arms I was going to leave my son a better country. But now I see: nothing has changed. The same violence and structural injustice has continued through all those years of armed struggle. So many deaths – and for what? And now here I am, in prison, for the crimes I committed during my time as a guerrilla."

Andrés told us of his suffering during one of our visits to a penal institution on the outskirts of a city in Colombia. We were with a professor from the Javeriana University who was starting a peace course for ex-combatants in the prison – one of many initiatives aimed at healing the wounds of a continent considered to be among the most violent in the world: Latin America. This is the continent where organised crime – with its violent domination of land, business, the exploitation of natural resources and human trafficking – claims the highest death toll.

Huge gap between rich and poor. Latin America suffers the violence of distributive injustice. Just walk the streets of any large city and you will see evidence in the growing disparity between rich and poor. It is an injustice that kills and forces vulnerable people to move in search of a place where they can feel safe. Andrés took up arms against this injustice, believing that one kind of violence could be solved by another. This belief is common in the human heart and currently sustains dozens of armed conflicts worldwide.

We urgently need to disarm the belief that drove Andrés to fight, to demobilise the militarised culture that, almost unknowingly, we adopt in our behaviour and attitudes. Violence has seeped in through the wounds of the human heart and it is time to heal it through forgiveness and reconciliation at personal and political level.

Working with people affected by violence, JRS has adopted reconciliation as a specific mission: "to recreate right relationships with others, with ourselves, with nature and creation that suffer the violence of our materialism, and with God – source of the love that recreates all". From the moment a victim knocks on our door, reconciliation becomes a strategic and cross-cutting aspect of everything that we do.

Reconciliation. In Latin America, especially in Colombia, JRS has spent three years learning how to carry out this mission. Now we are applying our experience and discernment to the national situation through the Reconciliation Colombia project. This initiative is promoted by the UN with more than 30 partners and three central protagonists: private enterprise, local and regional government, and social organisations. It is an alliance that fosters dialogue as "a long-term process of rebuilding trust between people, communities, sectors of society and authorities that will successfully restore the fabric of society and build a future through an acknowledgment of the past, and through emotional and psychological recuperation of victims and perpetrators".

JRS organises workshops on reconciliation for its teams and for the communities we serve. Our added value is being able to work on healing through the spirituality or "sources of life" that every person or group possesses. This deep and personal level of healing is connected with community, social and political levels of reconciliation in workshops on transitional justice.

Turning the page. Transitional justice seeks to turn the page of history, leaving behind past human rights violations to go towards a society at peace. There is the quest for truth, justice, the reparation of wrongs, and reconciliation between conflicting parties. We are not advocating impunity. Rather we try to transform lessons learned by our teams and displaced communities into concrete action that is incorporated into each local project.

The first step towards reconciliation is to listen to the wisdom that springs from pain: "Reconciliation is to leave vengeance and prejudices behind, to join the lost path again, to put aside rancour and open the heart to new possibilities". Carmen is one of many people who managed to do this. She told us we were seated exactly where they had killed her son – on the veranda of her house. His widow could not bear the pain of his loss and went away, leaving her daughter behind.

Granny, don't cry. Carmen had to care for her granddaughter despite being struck down by a depression that confined her to bed. She rarely left the darkness of her room, only going out at night to visit the cemetery. There she would cry and cry, kneeling by the grave of her son until just before daybreak. Then she would return to her bed. But her granddaughter would slip into her room and say: "Granny, don't cry. My daddy is alive in heaven". This changed Carmen. She was compelled to fight for the life of her granddaughter, because the little girl was fighting for hers. She started to pick herself up and, little by little, to recover her life.

Carmen went on to set up an association, Mothers for Life, with the widows and mothers of men who had been killed. They work to help one another overcome their pain and seek reconciliation. Carmen told us her story a few days before the fourth anniversary of her son's death. She said: "These days around the anniversary are still hard for me so now I go more often to the priest's house because it lifts my spirits. They killed all his family too".

We have learned reconciliation is not easy. It is a labour that spans decades – and generations. And it is children, the next generation – like Carmen's granddaughter – who inspire action. Some say: "Reconciliation is a hope, a new opportunity for us and our children. Reconciliation is the hope that they can enjoy what we have been unable to enjoy".

Preventive reconciliation. We call the impetus coming from future generations "preventive reconciliation". Children of victims and of perpetrators can play together and be friends today, so that tomorrow they will produce reconciled families and communities. They can work miracles in breaking the cycle of violence.

We asked a mother whose husband had been assassinated whether she could take a few small healing steps if they would help give her children a better future. Although she was clearly reluctant to consider reconciliation, she quickly replied: "A mother will do anything for her children".

Reconciliation Colombia calls on parents to consider their children and those of others and to ask themselves: Who will take the initiative? Who will dare to ask for forgiveness? This is the kind of reconciliation that Jesus promotes. On the cross, he asks his Father to forgive his executioners. Pope Francis says Jesus acted like a lamb and adds: "What does it mean for us today, to be disciples of Jesus, the Lamb of God? It means replacing malice with innocence, replacing power with love..." What Jesus does seems paradoxical: to be like a lamb to fight a lion. We cannot fight violence in society unless we embody peace; unless we can be the change we want to see.

Miguel Humberto Grijalba SJ, JRS Colombia coordinator for reconciliation, & Elías López Pérez SJ, JRS consultant on reconciliation

In June 2013, as part of an ongoing collaboration between JRS and the Centre for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, JRS workers from across the world met with academics at the Metta Karuna Reflection Centre in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The aim of the workshop was to reflect on the role of reconciliation in JRS, and to articulate the underlying principles and elements of our work in this area. To get a copy of the manual capturing the insights of the workshop, write to servir@jrs.net.