Women's Peace Table, Popayan, Colombia
“Let us move together towards the truth”
In May 2019, 20 women participating in a Women's Peace Table in southern Colombia discussed their experiences during the armed conflict. They spoke about grief, anger, truth and forgiveness. The Colombian Truth Commission is participating in this Peace Table programme in 2019 and 2020.
The women walk together through the dense, lush forest. Stopping at a tree, they read the yellow note attached to it. It says, "I have understood that I can’t stay with this pain; I want to learn to forgive."
One woman talks about how she wanted to commit suicide, because the pain of her experiences during the conflict in Colombia had become intolerable. But then something stirred within her: "I can’t do the perpetrators the favour of not living anymore, after what has been done to me." The other women listen in silence. Then they continue along the path, at the beginning of which a board calls on the women to "let us move together towards the truth."
The 20 women participated in a Peace Table that took place in May in Popayan, in the south of Colombia. It was the first of four regional Peace Tables organised this year by COMUNITAR, PeaceWomen Across the Globe’s partner organisation. The Colombian "Commission for the Clarification of the Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition” is cooperating in these Peace Tables with the aim of ensuring that women are part of the peace process and that their experiences are not forgotten. PeaceWomen Across the Globe (PWAG) provides essential support, particularly important as the Colombian state, which is responsible for financing the work of the Commission, has cut its budget by 40 percent.
Stories of resistance
In Popayan, Alejandra Miller Restrepo, a member of the PWAG board and of the Truth Commission, talked about the current state of the peace process and explained the Commission’s goals. One of its aims is to collect as many women’s testimonies as possible so that they can be included in the truth-finding process and in the building of the historical record of the armed conflict. Her focus and that of the Commission is both on the women’s pain and suffering and on their stories of resistance, “what you did to survive,” Alejandra Miller Restrepo told the women. Including both aspects in their testimonies ensures that the women are regarded not only as victims, but also as actors, as women with agency.
Five members of local truth commissions, the so-called "casas de verdad", took part in the Peace Table in order to record the "testimonios", the women’s statements. The decision whether to tell their stories or not is entirely up to the women. Even though they know that the statements will remain anonymous, they often find it difficult to talk about their experiences. But the time spent with women who listen and understand and share similar experiences makes it easier for them to open up.
At home, they repress the memories and the pain. "We do not dare to cry because we don’t want to burden the family," said one of the women. Another expressed what many thought: "This is a place where we can give free rein to our feelings – to grief and to the joy that we are not alone.” After two days, 14 out of the 20 women had told their stories to the Truth Commission staff members. The experiences from the regional Peace Tables will be gathered and exchanged at the national Peace Table, which will be held in Medellín towards the end of 2019. All the women who attended the regional Peace Tables will be invited to participate because accountability and strengthening the women’s resources and networks are part of the process.
Forgiveness without forgetting
A central component of the PeaceTables is the women’s psycho-social support. The walk along the forest path brings the women, many of whom were driven from their land during the conflict, into nature and re-awakens memories. At the conclusion of the Peace Table, each woman receives a terracotta pot, some earth, a packet of seeds and a paper flower on which encouraging and motivational sayings are fastened. During the two days, there was much talking and crying but also hugging and singing – and hope.
They have learned that they can break their silence and talk about the atrocities they have experienced that they can forgive without forgetting. The process of coming to terms with the past, in which the Truth Commission’s report will play an important role, will ultimately ensure this.