Over the weekend I watched Particle Fever, a documentary that follows six of the 10 000 scientists who joined forces to build the Large Hadron Collider and find the so-called “god particle”. It was a long-term experiment initiated in the 1990s that was successfully completed in 2013, nearly 50 years after the existence of the particle was first predicted.
This got me thinking about time and our capacity to commit to a cause: “Life is too short”, this saying is especially true when it comes to social change, yet we expect almost-miracles to happen at the introduction of a new policy or an agreement among few.
A development recently hit the news and directly refers to my personal timeline: the peace process in Colombia, where I was born and raised. Bogota in the 1980s was marred by death and conflict. I remember as a high school student thinking that it was up to my generation, and specifically me, to be part of solving the crisis. It was, I thought naively, my calling and it filled me with an inordinate amount of hope for the future — my future.
I ended up studying abroad and following the conflict from afar. I remember helping to create a working group at my university in the US that organised mock peace negotiations with a few other classmates, none of them Colombian but all fascinated by the country and its tribulations. We even managed to get a government envoy to join one of our academic exercises.
Time passed and I gave up on my ideal, partly because I discovered other fascinating countries that I wanted to explore but mainly because I never felt that I could meaningfully contribute to such a mammoth undertaking. Justice was an elusive target and it seemed that what people wanted was to “solve the problem” by increasing the war arsenal rather than finding ways to heal the wounds.
It is now expected that by March of this year a peace deal will see armed groups put down their weapons, military forces go under investigation and a system of transitional justice kick in to even out the path for what many expect will be the final stroke of diplomacy.
It is an exciting time to be alive and the younger me would say: “I told you it was possible.” The sense of hope and optimism is real; even my father who is often too critical of the state of affairs in the country said over the weekend: “We are in a good place. We are making progress.”
Nevertheless, we all know it’s not that simple. When the scientists at Cern discovered the Higgs boson (the actual name of the “god particle”), they were immediately armed with more evidence and more questions, and the scientific method continued.
Peace, likewise, isn’t an event. It’s a process that involves many spheres of society — not all of them currently sitting at the negotiation table. Many of the wounds are still too fresh and political forces risk diverting the course towards genuine agreement.
Furthermore, the result of such talks is never perfect. One of the models the Colombian peace process has studied is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It’s a globally lauded approach to transitional justice from which many countries have learned, yet we also know it was not the panacea to the grave injustices upon which the apartheid system thrived.
The thing is, undoing what decades of structural violence does to a society takes more than ostentatious political moves. It takes long-term investment beyond the timeframes of political cycles and the scope of individual lives. As has been evident in the past few months, the wounds are still open in this country. The TRC was the answer to a seemingly intractable situation at the time but clearly more was and is needed.
If my fellow Colombians are to learn from the South African experience, a thorough shake-up of how we “achieve” peace is needed. A conscientious reflection on what a conflict-free society means will require investment in the areas that take more time than the election cycle — those we all know and wonder why are at the bottom of the pile: education, health and land distribution, to mention only a few.
It’s cliché to contrast the timeline of human existence with that of the universe. The vastness of the latter is perhaps only comprehensible to those who speak in mathematical equations, but we don’t have to understand quantum physics to appreciate the discrepancy between human lifetimes and the real-time processes that are required to change our societies.
I want to celebrate my 36th birthday in March and have a toast to a peace that concludes five decades of civil conflict in the place where I was born. But I will know better than to say that peace has been achieved in my lifetime. I am indeed witnessing a historical moment that will hopefully propel the right policies and decisions for improvement. But at the end of the day, it will be up to everyone to hold the process accountable to lasting results.