Colombian peacebuilder Vera Grabe takes us deeper into her story. She recounts the final days of the M-19 guerilla movement, their decision to lay aside arms, and the courageous leader who inspires her to this day.
How does someone go from seeing violence as a solution to seeing it as part of the problem, and to seeing nonviolence as a better path?
We first introduced our readers to Vera Grabe in a profile exploring her “Peace Culture” work in Colombia. Her story takes a radical turn, as she goes from fighting alongside the M-19 guerilla movement to being a nonviolent peacebuilder.
In this interview, we go deeper into her story, her doubts, her convictions about nonviolence, and why she sees it as the path forward for Colombia.
Vera, what are your reactions to the Truth Report delivered in Colombia last month? Do you think it reflected accurately on the armed conflict and charted a way forward?
I think it’s very important because it is a synthesis of a very complex situation. It recommends ways to create a culture of peace. If we don’t make it click in our mind, and if we in Colombia don’t learn from the violence, we will not have sustainable peace.
I’m not sure [the report] established a difference between the actors. You sometimes feel it was the same to be a rebel or to be in the military or to be a paramilitary. But at the time, [M-19’s] struggle [against autocracy] was legitimate.
Of course, nobody wanted violence. We did not take up arms because we were violent people, but because we didn’t see other ways to struggle for justice, for democracy. It was the way many people wanted to change things. They saw it as their method.
We were part of a generation who didn’t see other possibilities if we wanted change. We had the example of Che Guevara and the example of the Cuban revolution and of Nicaragua. Other examples of revolutions, struggles where people, when they wanted change, took up arms. It was legitimate for us then. We didn’t know the struggle of Gandhi, the possibility of nonviolent struggle. It was not in our radar, in our possibilities.
Today, no. Today, I think it’s not the way, not only because I don’t like it, but because there are other forms, other ways.
When did you start questioning the methods of M-19?
One of the people who realized it very quickly was the commandant of M-19, Carlos Pizarro. He was a great warrior, he was a great military man, but he began to see a pattern where we were, in the Cauca. When the leader was there, the population liked us very much. But when we left, then came the army, and other groups that repressed them. They said, “We like you very much, but when you go, others come and they hurt us. They attack our houses and our people and our women.” That was one factor; the armed struggle began to damage the [civilian] population. If you fight for people, but the fight you make is not good for the people, you have to rethink.
Another factor was that our military actions no longer had an impact. You struggle to change things and have an impact, and then you see that you struggle and struggle and struggle, and it doesn’t appear in the media. And so you ask, What am I doing here?
Pizarro also said, “We struggle against the same people as we are. The soldiers on the other side, they have the same God, they have the same origin. They are poor, too, and we are killing them. The elite have not been affected. They continue with their life and with their system. It makes no sense.”
He said, “We have to make peace with the armed forces for the sake of the nation. We have to end the war against the oligarchy. We have to leave the armed struggle independently of what happens, because it is not the only way to get the changes we want in Colombia.”
Was there part of you that disagreed with Pizarro?
Of course there were doubts. We’d always said “Arms are the way,” and now we were saying the opposite. It was very new. It was really a new paradigm, and it came from the biggest, strongest warrior. He said, “We have to leave it.” The combatants said, “Now, what will happen with us? We leave our arms aside and what will we do?”
But we made a very strong pedagogical effort, so that the people comprehended something very important. That was the authority Pizarro had, because he was the commandant. When he said it, the people believed him. If he didn’t have that military and ethical authority, nobody would have believed him. That was a very important factor.
In 1989, we voted to leave our arms. There were only two people who said no.
You've described Pizarro as commanding authority and trust. How did he earn that trust?
We trusted that it was the right way, and we had to make this decision because it made no sense to stay in the conflict. But the decision was hard, because at that time in Colombia, everybody armed themselves. It wasn’t easy, but Pizarro said, “If it doesn’t work, we know how to make war. We can make war again.”
In Colombia, you can get arms. That’s not the problem. The problem is what you think, and we had to make this step, this leap into a vacuum where there was nothing. We had to take the risk.
So we took the risk, at camp Santo Domingo, in the mountains of the Cauca. The people who visited us and their ambience surrounded this decision. And it was not only our decision. It was a decision the people of Colombia wanted. The government also wanted the peace process.
What allowed you to trust the government?
This was a liberal government, conscious that they had to make political changes in Colombia. The president was a reformer and he made the decision, at a meeting between the government and M-19. It was very easy. The process was very honest, very sincere, with no hidden cards or ideas.
How would you describe your own feelings during this process?
I had a lot of doubts. I was never a great military leader. I was always more political, but I had big doubts. I said, “What will happen? What guarantees will we have when we make this decision?”
But then I went to Santo Domingo, to this camp. When I saw all the people who were there, all the visitors that came, all the ambience, the peace. It was the best lesson for me. I didn’t have any more doubts then.
How do people tend to react when you tell them this story today?
When I say that peace needs mental change, people react. When you lay aside arms, you also have to get out your old logic, your mental scheme. You have to change it. But the people I work with have seen it as a valid example of peace. They say, “You know the other side. You know the side of violence, and so you have authority to talk about peace.” People value it very much.
Of course, there are people who don’t see a difference between having been a guerrilla and not being one anymore. They think that you are still the same. That’s difficult for some people. But mostly people understand and say, “You are a very good example that peace is possible and that you yourself make the change.
What do you think are the most important mental, personal changes that people have to go through when they lay down arms? Which one is the hardest?
There’s this idea that we struggle for peace, that peace is the goal and we have to get there. Today, they have to understand that peace is also a way itself. It means changing hierarchies. You have to learn to see others, to recognize others, to not say “My truth is the truth.” You have to say no [to yourself]. You have to show through practice that you have another power: the power of words, the power of thinking. You are not powerless when you leave your arms aside.
In what ways do you encourage people to practice making these changes or seeing peace as a method?
It’s very important to leave stigma aside. To recognize that other human beings have history and problems and processes. You have to see it. To trust that people can change, can get rid of ideas like “I am better than you, I am more powerful than you.”
Accept paradox. Make inclusion a practice. Do not be a judge of other people. There are a lot of things that require a new logic to recognize complexity, to leave thoughts of good and bad, friends and enemies behind. All thinking that reduces to two parts–this or that–damages us.
Do you find that people are afraid of losing their identity if they can’t think in terms of friends and enemies anymore?
I think it’s very liberating. We become examples of reconciliation. One man [I knew] was a commander of the paramilitary, and he had been through a lot of processes of reintegration. He said that the first time he really felt that he was reintegrating was during one of our projects. “Here I am,” he said. “I’m not the ex-paramilitary commander. I am me. And I am recognized as a human being who has changed.”
That’s very important, to see people independent of their history. I think the most important thing in peace culture is to recognize the other, to recognize myself. We see other people with our lens, and we classify them. Getting rid of that is very important.
When people find that peace is not a faraway goal, but a possibility to have relationships with their family, there is no need to use violence to get authority. If they have tools to transform themselves, transform conflicts, and if they recognize others as human beings, they empower themselves very easily. It’s like magic.
Do you often encourage people to think of other goals besides an ideal peace?
In our peace process, the government said, “Here is peace.” And we said, “There will be no one peace.” There are a lot of names for peace. You have to show that to people, make sense of it for them. Because if you talk of peace as an ideal, we feel it is nearly impossible. We’ll say it’s a very important goal, that we’ll get there someday. But I think we have to give it a practical sense in our lives.
We have in Colombia, and I think all over the world, a way of thinking through absence. I attribute it to the cultural violence, and to only saying what we don’t have. We don’t say what we are, and what we have, and the positive things.
We are not only our violence. We also have peace in us, not as a calm, but as a force of transformation. It’s the possibility of seeing the world, seeing life, in another way: with inclusion, with recognition of the other, without prejudice, without stigma, without always judging people.
Peace has a lot of names. It’s not tranquility, and it’s not passivity. It’s action, recognition, reconciliation, relationships. You can give it a lot of names because peace is a logic. It’s a lens to put on reality, to see what does and doesn’t exist.
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