John Wallace & Rev. Ivan Herman
April 9, 2018
Four heavily armed Colombian soldiers in uniform barely glanced at us as we turned off the highway into the Zona Veredal Transitoria de Normalización (Transitional Normalization Zone) called Tierra Grata (Pleasant Land). There are 26 ZVTN’s throughout Colombia, which were established under the peace accords between the Colombian government and the FARC in 2016. The FARC, whose identifying initials mean Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has redefined itself as a political party, the party for Common Alternative Revolutionary Force. ZVTN’s were established to facilitate the demilitarization of FARC and are now helping former guerrillas to reintegrate into civilian life. The surrounding communities at first hesitated to have a ZVTN in their neighborhood, but as the ex-combatants have hosted community meetings about implementing the peace accords, more neighbors have attended, seen the FARC commitment to peace, and accepted the FARC presence.
We didn’t have to sign in to enter Tierra Grata; until a few months ago, papers were checked and IDs scrutinized. While the military stands guard at the entrance, the residents and others in the surrounding communities are free to come and go from Tierra Grata as they wish. One of the local farmers, who was visiting his new neighbors, also greeted us. We watched the local police make regular rounds as this is now a civilian population under their jurisdiction.
We set off on foot up the slope into the community of Tierra Grata. An ex-combatant in his mid-20s greeted us as we reached the shade of a large tree. We were accompanying four Colombians and another American who were visiting this community. There is still a United Nations presence, we were told, but the UN now remains in the background. We sat all morning in the wall-free community building with a couple of FARC ex-combatants and heard their stories and their hopes for the future.
The greatest challenge is land, which has been at the heart of over 50 years of conflict and displacement in Colombia. As we toured the grounds, one ex-combatant said that while housing is sufficient, until they own the land it sits upon, the arrangement isn’t very dignified. The greatest need expressed by the residents of Tierra Grata is that they own the land on which their community is built, but now they still have to pay rent to the owner. In order to move forward, they need to have economic opportunity, they said. They have a few small business ideas they have tried (and paid for out of their own pockets): small gardens, a few livestock, a small tailoring shop. While these micro-enterprises might be sufficient to support a family, they do not support a community of 150 women, men and families. Their hope is bigger: to build up the community and support it with better housing and education. Perhaps a clothing manufacturing plant could use the expertise they learned in making their own uniforms.
Another ex-combatant walked us down the hill and showed us what he hopes will be their next great opportunity: eco-tourism. The community had already built a replica of the FARC camps they established during the war. Mostly a series of camouflage tents set up through a heavily wooded acre, the camp had a capacity for 50-60 fighters (soon to be tourists, they hope), a cooking area, infirmary, dining, and education facilities. But unless they own the land, their project will be only an eco-tourism prototype.
After lunch, we sat in a shaded patio and they sang happy birthday to Ivan…in English, no less. The idea that these same guerrillas could have targeted and captured the Americans in the group as their ideological enemies and that now they are extending birthday wishes was utterly astounding.
But there is still plenty to do, forgiveness to be offered from all sides of the conflict, and trust to be established. The IPC (Presbyterian Church of Colombia) continues to create avenues for peaceful relationships. During a visit a month ago, some FARC residents requested pots and pans, kitchen utensils, and a sleeping bag. On our visit we brought some of these items that had been donated by members of the IPC church. It was a simple, yet profound act of building trust for those who until recently had been feared.
Peace truly is possible, and by God’s grace, in Tierra Grata it is becoming a reality.