“You and I are simple social by-products,” said Vusi as we engaged in a heated discussion over the weekend. A younger me would have tried to disagree by presenting examples of human exceptionalism. But the week before had been the best mirror to stare at myself and relate to his words. Despite the distance and the long period of separation from the place I was born, the ongoing peace negotiations in Colombia have made me feel things I can’t explain with logic.
On 2 October, after four years of protracted negotiations, a plebiscite failed to ratify the peace agreement Colombia’s government had signed a few weeks prior with Farc, the largest guerrilla group in the country. This agreement would have ended more than 50 years of conflict and been a huge step towards reconciliation in a country where division and resentment run deep. The story behind this was outlined in a recent article titled The Country that Voted Against Peace: The reasons behind Colombia’s failed negotiation.
I don’t understand all the technicalities of the agreement and, though I’ve tried to follow the news and speak to others, my view is limited. Yet, what I experienced in the past few days was, apparently, similar to what most Colombians underwent. Some described a sense of loss, mourning, depression, and physical fragility. How could so many people linked by so little share the same sentiment? (If you judge by the plebiscite results, the historical polarisation and the ever-so-telling social media.)
Last Sunday, I left home before 6am to cycle from the CBD of Cape Town to Blouberg to serve as jury for the plebiscite taking place at the Colombian consulate. I had been selected randomly, with four other Colombians living in Cape Town, to observe the voting process the world was watching. At eight o’clock, we opened the polling station. I sat with the other members of the jury; heard their stories about how they ended up in Cape Town; we made lunch, shared jokes and spoke to the 20 Colombians who during the day came and cast their vote. Politics would come up now and then, and since our role was to maintain an environment of neutrality, we were assertive in disallowing people from holding such discussions in the voting room. Even so, and almost without fail, the conversation centred on the hope that the country was finally making a turn.
The official voting period came to an end at 4pm and counting began. I felt dizzy when the votes for ‘no’ started to pile up. By the time we finished, I was nauseated. I thought: a group of 25 surely cannot be representative of what 50 million really feel about ending 50 years of war. Not unlike me, Colombians in Cape Town – disconnected from what is going on back home – were probably just persuaded by the propaganda. But, in the end, it was a microcosm for the reality thousands of kilometres away. Thirteen people voted no and 12 voted yes in Cape Town. The overall vote was just as tight: 49.8% said yes and 50.2% rejected the peace agreement.
That evening, it dawned on me – as social media platforms fiercely announced them – the results were irreversible. The next morning, I couldn’t get to work on time. I hadn’t slept enough and the headache wouldn’t go away. As I related the story to a colleague, she asked: ‘So how does it affect you?’ I didn’t know what to say. My parents live in Bogotá, which is sheltered from direct violence, and war never touched our door … not directly anyway. I had a distant cousin who was once kidnapped and, as I learned recently, my grandfather was also kidnapped, back in the 60s, for being a ‘liberal’. I guess we were all affected by the conflict and for that reason the current situation resonates with us all.
I tried to take some distance – a busy week lay ahead of me and there seemed little I could do anyway – but then I called my mom. She asked me not to worry, and said that they were fine but sad for those in the countryside with hopes of returning to their homes. (Let’s not forget Colombia has the largest number of internally displaced people in the world.) And so it hit me. The result of the plebiscite didn’t have a direct impact on my Monday – beyond my complete inability to think – but it affected my human experience more profoundly. I have lived outside Colombia since I was 17 and I often admit that I miss very little from my birthplace other than close relatives and friends. Yet this week left me feeling responsible, powerless and irremediably a by-product of the country’s history. Vusi was right indeed.
The week unfolded and more news was coming and going. Fabio, a Colombian friend well-versed on peace and reconciliation, shared some of his thinking and writing on the implications of a failed plebiscite. What neither he nor most human beings watching this soap opera unfold could have forecasted was the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize to the president whose political career had, by all accounts, been crushed only five days earlier. On Friday, the rollercoaster began again. Social media was in frenzy. Some were rejoicing at the show of international solidarity to the peace process, while others openly rejected it. Most were in utter disbelief.
The week came to an end and the process continues. Several months ago I reflected on the idea that ‘peace is not an event’. Today I am realising it is a series of confounding and often illogical events – because peace is waged by humans. Many have used Gabriel García Márquez’s allegory of magical realism to explain the incredible saga. I will accept it as the social by-product of my time on this planet.