Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Theidon: Former Combatants Test Colombia as a Post-Conflict State

November 9, 2010

The shaky reinsertion of former combatants in Colombia highlights the elusiveness of reconciliation after more than four decades of violent civil war, according to medical anthropologist Kimberly Theidon.

In certain cases, returning paramilitaries are feted as saviors. But other communities are not warned of the reinsertion – “they wake up and say there are killers living on my street corner.” Certain former fighters live clandestinely, spooked by the warning that the only way to leave the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is in a casket. Yet other ex-combatants still wield power, and fearful communities dare not confront them. 

“Reconciliation is very elusive as both a concept and a goal,” said Theidon, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, in a recent talk at the Institute. 

Lingering tensions, ongoing violence, and lack of consultation with communities have complicated reconciliation in Colombia. Two diverging types of demobilization, for right-wing paramilitary groups and left-wing rebel movements, have further impacted the difficulty of reconciliation. 

By 2003, paramilitary leaders and the government had negotiated the demobilization of more than 30,000 soldiers. But the top-down process was complicated by the midlevel commanders – “they’re the guys with the entourage, maybe 1,500 men under them, they didn’t want to demobilize and they’re pissed.” 

The other process was individual. Soldiers in the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the FARC voluntarily decided to leave the rebel groups – a terrifying decision for many.
“Can they go home or is it best they not show their face? Who are the guilty? The somewhat guilty?” Theidon asked during her talk, titled “Pasts Imperfect: Working with Former Combatants in Colombia.”

“Perpetrator categories need to be disaggregated,” she added, “because people do get tried in the court of public opinion.”

But blame was frequently rejected by former combatants during the 312 interviews she conducted. Many of them argued they had never murdered anyone. Rather they maintained they had killed enemies during combat – for them a wholly different category. 

Justice is also a term with a shifting definition, Theidon said. 

A recently demobilized ELN soldier, for example, told her he shot paramilitaries to avenge their killing of his brother. “You know they die having justice done to them,” she said he recounted. 

Justice is also manipulated by the more powerful, who dictate to the victims how to forgive, according to Theidon. “You’re going to drag some people kicking and screaming to the coexistence discussion,” she said. This hasty reconciliation effort is further pressured by countries’ rapid spending of foreign aid in a bid to impress the donors, she added.

Ironically, another large part of the challenge for reconciliation is that many parts of Colombia don’t feel that the country is reconciled, Theidon said.  

Though the conflict has ebbed, the rise of unorganized violent groups has further confused and frightened civilians. “Most folks do not have even a minimal sense of security,” Theidon said. “What kind of transition are we talking about in Colombia?”

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Alexandra Ulmer ’11