Fifty women gathered under a dim, incandescent bulb, too weak to dispel the moonlight shadow cast upon the church’s massive colonial doorway. Tourists and Colombians on a weekend escape strolled across the cobblestone plaza, sweaters tucked up against the cold. The microphone squeaked to life, and Alix stepped forward, clearing her throat. The group began to sing.

Fifty women from different faith traditions, victims of seemingly interminable decades of violence, were making a public appeal for peace. Some wore religious garb, some not; some had labored to sustain hope for a generation, while some were recent high school graduates. At first, their song rose slowly, but the cool night air caught it and lifted them, together, through a shared past and toward a future they were dedicated to bringing to life, and their voices soared.

People gathered, some taking photographs and others joining in spiritual song. Some cultures embrace the strangeness of the public space with so little discomfort. I had withdrawn down the stairs, filming against the darkness, when two women paused in front of me. Their body language clearly expressed rejection and incrimination toward the gathering. It took me by surprise. A group of women of faith, offering only hope and service and fed by their spiritual convictions, seemed one of the few things in this place that might be above reproach.

When I ventured to offer that the women were taking action for peace, I was instantly met with a tidal wave of dismissive criticism and anger, bordering on rage. They decried the women as “puppets of the government,” sent to spread propaganda in favor of the FARC rebels.

After each subsequent verbal assault on the FARC, the government, and the religious women in front of us (among the bravest and most selfless individuals I know), these two women turned to storm off. Only my feeble protests provoked them into staying for one more rebuttal. “The chance to open them to the possibility of peace is being lost!” I thought. But more importantly, I was losing the chance to understand why they were so angry about the prospect of peace—a sentiment that confounds many who are laboring on the other side.

Governed by political parties, economic interests, and media voices, the public story of the peace process between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government has largely calcified into two narratives. First, that an end to the armed violence “’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished,” requiring sacrifices on all sides—including political and justice concessions to a weakened FARC. The second, that any such concessions represent a grotesque injustice to those who suffered from FARC violence, both the military and civilians.

But another story lies in a quiet tangle of human experience beyond the mainstream spotlight. This story is rooted not in certainty, but in difficult emotions like fear and hope. Behind the voices of anger now aimed at me, for defending this perceived charade, rose the voice of Maritze from among the women peacemakers, as she intoned one of her poems. “Woman, you are broken clay, and must be made whole by many hands.”

Another story. I fell silent. A loose gathering had formed around us, and the air was crackling as disagreement was preparing to evolve into debate. When the two women paused, I simply asked, “How has the violence affected your lives?” The agitation stilled as the two women began to tell their stories. Anger shifted to tears. Both women had lost family to the FARC, and both were mothers of active-duty soldiers—two young men serving in the border jungles of Putumayo, out of contact for weeks at a time. Two mothers who went to sleep every night with prayer and doubt and fear in their minds. Love can cause phenomenal anger.

But I recognized this fear and pain and love as the same that had vaulted my religious women colleagues into an “irrational” hope. This is not the hope of the idle—simply “wishing it were so.” This is hope in action, digging the ground hoping for a good harvest, or raising a child hoping for a happy family. Some call it prayer in action, others prayer as action.

When I left, we embraced. I am certain they were still not supporters of the peace process, just as I was not any more convinced that continued violence was a righteous punishment for so much loss. But we all went home that night having found a common human feeling lodged in the heart of those whom we perceived as enemies of our needs. And this will make the next conversation easier.

Colombians have voted to reject a peace deal whose very existence should be considered a minor miracle. Many pundits, media professionals, and politicians are interpreting “why” at full throttle. But it seems that these two women simply did not feel heard. And they represent many more: men, and children, and voices of the lost.

There is a conversation that needs to happen in Colombia. Not a dialogue among leaders, civil society representatives, development professionals, or experts in truth and reconciliation. There is a conversation that needs to happen between parents of dead children and parents of those who killed them. Between those whose livelihoods were lost to government actions and those whose livelihoods were lost to militants. Between those who are tempted to join armed groups and those who are desperate to leave them.

Perhaps the “No” vote in the peace referendum is more than mere rejection of the Havana agreement. Perhaps it is an appeal to finish the conversation, to allow the stories to be told, the anger to be shouted, and the songs to be sung. Perhaps then Colombians may find, within their very differences, the things that will lead them together forward and finally away from their pain—not toward more cycles of anger—but toward a hope that builds a future.
Opens in a new window