The outcome of the Colombian referendum on the 2nd October, to vote in favour or against the proposed peace deal, was certainly not expected. With Sí polling a comfortable lead right up until the day of the vote, people were extremely shocked as the results came through: No had won, 50.21% to 49.78%. On that Sunday, many Sí voters felt as if they were in mourning, for a future of peace in Colombia that they had been so sure was finally on the horizon. Some people decided to channel this mourning into positive collective action, and we spoke to Alejandra Corredor, a member of the Campamento Por La Paz in Bogotá, to find out how.
On 5th October, thousands of Colombians, devastated by the results of the referendum, took to the streets to express their collective sadness in the March of the Silence. With the atmosphere of a funeral, tinged with a sense of anger as well as hope, people wearing white and carrying candles marched to Plaza Bolívar in the heart of Bogotá. Once the march had ended, a group of seven participants decided they didn’t want to simply go home and forget about it all. They decided to stay and set up camp in the square, vowing that they would not leave until a new peace deal was signed.
On the day we visit Campamento Por La Paz to speak to Alejandra, now over a month since its inception, it is home to over 200 people. It is covered in banners and posters, showing slogans demanding peace, the camp’s Twitter and Facebook details or lists of supplies they need. There is a kitchen tent, a large meeting area where they get together to make collective decisions and even a small garden and meditation space. Alejandra, an electrical engineer in her late twenties, was one of the first 60 people to join the camp the weekend following the March for the Silence.
“This is actually the first time I have ever been involved in any political movement or direct action, and that is the case for many people here. It’s something that has affected us all very deeply, and when the results of the referendum came out, we really felt the need to get involved in a way many of us hadn’t with other issues in the past. For me, being part of this is really empowering.”
When Alejandra and her compañeros arrived at the camp on that first weekend, they began discussing how they wanted the camp to be organised, and set about making this happen; they set up various committees on areas such as food, security, art, and the peace
process itself. The camp is organised horizontally with everyone working together and participating in daily assemblies where decisions are made on practical issues regarding the camp, as well as political decisions.
“We have had to make collective decisions about how we communicate with the government and other bodies involved in the peace deal, and sometimes this has been hard,” says Alejandra. “Since the beginning we declared the camp to be politically neutral – we don’t follow any particular party – but obviously we feel it is important to be in conversation with those in power, to make sure the voices of the thousands of people we represent are heard. The president came down to the camp to talk to us, responding to the manifesto that we had written; not everyone wanted him to come, but I think it was good to hear from him. We are also discussing whether or not someone from FARC should come, and there wasn’t an easy agreement on that, but for the time being some people from our camp are going to their meetings, to hear it from their side.”
The Campamento por la Paz aims to be a positive and optimistic movement and it has succeeded in bringing many more people into this movement for peace. Following the establishment of the camp in Bogotá on 5th October, many other protest camps popped up across the country, from Cali to Cartagena, as well as a movement called ‘Paz a la Calle’, which covers 23 cities across the country and has united Colombians and non-Colombians alike all over the world.
This network of camps and campaigns has certainly had an impact. After the referendum, it was announced that the truce that had been held between the government and FARC would be lifted on the 21st October. The protesters reacted to this, demanding that the ceasefire continue until a new peace deal was agreed. The government then changed the date to 21st December. With government soldiers and guerrillas waiting uneasily in the nearby mountains and jungles, this ceasefire was key to preventing an outbreak of violence. With this new date in place, there was enough time to secure a new deal. A few days after our interview in Bogotá, the government announced they had renegotiated with FARC, and on Thursday of this week, the new deal was signed. We asked Alejandra what she, and the protesters at the camp in general, thought of the new development.
“It seems to us that they took into account all of the proposals from the No voters, and that although they have given in to some points that we do not like, nonetheless it was a negotiation and we embrace it and support it.”
However, despite this good news for the future of peace in Colombia, the camp itself has suffered aggressive treatment from the state. When the new deal was announced, the camp discussed whether or not they should they end the occupation, and it was collectively decided that they would stay until the deal was officially signed. However, on Friday the 18th, the municipality began to take down the fences around the camp and in the early hours of Saturday morning, the camp was violently dismantled by police officers. When members of the camp tried to resist peacefully, they were brutally beaten by the police; one woman was dragged into a truck by her hair, whilst another had her finger broken in the truck door. A comrade of Alejandra, Anna Joseph, has written an article about what happened, detailing the abuses, hoping to make people aware of the way in which they have been handled by the state:
“The destruction of the Campamento por la Paz epitomizes the police abuse, political corruption, and intolerance of social protest that exists everywhere. Do we want politicians sending hundreds of police officers (accompanied by intelligence agents) to destroy an encampment of idealists and war victims using assemblies, pedagogy, and song to create a better country for their children? If not, are we doing what we can to voice that, and to support the activists on the front lines of civil rights battles?”
The Campamento emerged from confusion, anger and a feeling of deep loss. The protesters refused to give in to this despair, and, taking strength from each other, built a movement that will continue on long after the camp has been dismantled. As Anna says:
“The campistas of Campamento por la Paz are not deterred. They are healing and planning to continue their efforts to build a more peaceful, equal, and just Colombia.”