'I'm filled with joy': Colombians celebrate as dream of peace comes step closer to reality

Hundreds of people crowd the steps of Museo de Antioquia, Medellín's largest museum. From a distance, they're loud and holding white flags high in the air. But move closer and you see their pure joy. Drums rage. People embrace. A conga line even starts up. They're convinced Colombia's 52-year war is about to end.

But some warn ceasefire deal alone won't end 52-year war

A woman celebrates the ceasefire deal between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group outside Museo de Antioquia in Medellín. (Victoria Stunt/CBC News)

Hundreds of people crowd the steps of Museo de Antioquia, Medellín's largest museum. From a distance, they're loud and holding white flags high in the air. But move closer and you see their pure joy. Drums rage. People embrace. A conga line even starts up.

"Si se pudo!" the people chant ("Yes we could!").

They're convinced Colombia's 52-year war is about to end.

Hours earlier, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC commander Rodrigo Londono agreed to a ceasefire and rebel demobilization deal. It could be one of the final steps to ending the conflict.
FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono gestures before signing a historic ceasefire deal between the Colombian government and FARC rebels. (Reuters)

Since 1964, the violence has killed 220,000 people and left millions more displaced.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, is rooted in communism and claims to fight for the rights of the country's poor, while the government says it fights to maintain order.
Colombian Army soldiers guard the area where an alleged FARC guerrilla attack on April 14, 2015, left 11 people dead, in Timba, Colombia. (Christian Escobar Mora/EPA)

But over the years, there's been more than just these two players in the conflict. Other leftist guerrilla groups such as the ELN and the M-19, paramilitaries like the AUC, and various drug cartels have all fought against each other.

Thursday's deal not only confirms a ceasefire between FARC and the Colombian government, but the parties also outlined how 7,000 rebels will demobilize. The process will only begin once a final peace agreement is signed, possibly as early as next month.

'Dream of peace'  

"I'm filled with joy," said Ana Maria Berrío, who took part in the celebration Thursday. "It's evident that this dream of peace is going to start to become a reality."

Connie Mena, 26, says the war has been part of her entire life. "For me, this starts a new life."

She lives in Medellín, but she was born in Choco, a western department of Colombia that has seen plenty of guerrilla violence. Colombia has 32 regions, each with its own governor and assembly, known as departments. But she was in no mood to focus on her country's violent past. 

"Today I have the possibility to think about [Colombia as] another world, another country, and to think in other ways of being," she said.

Medellín was once one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Plagued with cartel violence during the reign of drug lord Pablo Escobar in the '80s and '90s, the city had a death rate of 380 per 100,000 people in 1991.
Guerrilla fighters of the FARC pose with their weapons after a patrol in the jungle near the town of Miraflores, Colombia. Colombia's government and the country's biggest rebel group reached a deal this month for ending a half-century of hostilities. (Reuters)

It's also the hometown of former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. FARC killed his father in 1983, and Uribe was elected to defeat the guerrilla group. His inauguration in 2002 was the scene of a deadly FARC attack that killed at least 14 people in Bogota. But he never relented in his battle against FARC, launching air strikes as well as hostage rescue missions.

Back at the celebration, grinning students stood at both ends of a banner that read in Spanish: "The last day of the war."

Not quite, says Marta Villa, the director of human rights organization Corporacion Region. She says the deal is an important step, and one of the most difficult to reach, but it doesn't mean Colombia's war is over. 

"Until all armed groups have negotiations, it won't be possible to really speak about peace," she said. "But this is a really important advancement in the right direction."

ELN, for example, a much smaller armed leftist group than FARC, has fought in the conflict since 1964, and continues to wreak havoc.
Members of ELN, another armed leftist group in Colombia. (Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters)

Although the Colombian government and ELN officials announced in March they would begin their own formal peace talks, President Santos says the discussions won't begin until ELN stops kidnapping people. And there's now concern ELN could take FARC's place in the conflict.

A final FARC peace deal is expected relatively soon, perhaps by July 20, Colombia's independence day. It's only then that the demobilization process will begin. FARC fighters will be moved to 23 zones and eight camps, where they will hand over their arms. After 180 days, FARC fighters will be free to join civilian ranks and reintegrate into Colombian society. 

Not everybody is thrilled with the terms of the ceasefire.

Santiago Valencia, a congressman for the department of Antioquia and member of Centro Democrático, a right-wing party led by Uribe, believes the government has granted FARC leaders impunity.
Santiago Valencia, a congressman for the department of Antioquia, doesn't like some of the terms of the ceasefire. (Victoria Stunt/CBC News)

Although the government has spoken in vague terms about some type of punishment, it doesn't involve real jail time, Valencia said.

He thinks FARC fighters should be forgiven and offered reintegration programs, but he doesn't want the same for the FARC leaders.

 "We think they should pay for what they've done to Colombia," he said in Medellín.

FARC fighters should be able to participate as a political party, he says, but not the leaders, whom he calls human rights criminals.

'Criminals and liars'

Gustavo Rojas, a security guard, said he's not very optimistic about the deal either.

"For me, the FARC have always been criminals and liars. They've hidden under the power of their weapons," he said. "They'll never accept the reality of what they've done in the past."

There were few signs of such pessimism back at the museum.

One man decked out his traditional regional clothing to celebrate the deal. He coloured his leather handbag and straw hat yellow, blue and red for Colombia, and wrote "PAZ" (peace) in big letters on both.  

Confetti, flowers and candles covered the ground of the plaza, and one bouquet of flowers was placed in the middle of the crowd. A sign in front of it read: R.I.P. war in Colombia 1964-2016.
A sign placed on the ground in the middle of the celebration reads: "R.I.P. war in Colombia 1964-2016." (Victoria Stunt/CBC News)

About the Author

Victoria Stunt is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Medellin, Colombia. Follow her at @vgstunt.