The Art of Living’s role in resolving a 51-year-old conflict in Colombia

Started by peasants and landowners to fight against the disturbing inequality in the country, FARC or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia waged a 51-year-old war against the Colombian government. The war began for a cause. Like Pablo Catatumbo, an ex-FARC leader shares, “I was nineteen years old when I was arrested by the police after a demonstration and beaten by them in jail. When I saw the same happening to a shoeshine boy, that is when I decided to join the FARC.” Thousands of youth like him entered the revolutionary group because of the state’s unethical and unfair ways. Little did they realize that violence will only generate more violence. 

Reportedly, 7 million Colombians lost their homes and more than 200,000 families lost their loved ones because of FARC’s war against the government. With time, it became increasingly difficult to defeat the guerilla group. As Juan Carlos, a Colombian MP from Bogota shares, “The Colombian government never had the military capacity to defeat the Guerillas. With drug-trafficking, the guerillas found an easy way to finance their activities which made them really powerful.” 

“The number of victims of this conflict was more than the Palestinian conflict and the war in Kosovo,” adds Carlos.

The war and its stories of suffering and pain needed a stop.

A ray of hope

A peace initiative was started by the then Colombian president, Juan Santos. But, with years of mistrust between the government and the FARC, the peace process kept going back and forth with several ceasefire violations.

However, with the support of many international organizations, the peace process gained momentum.

The Art of Living intervention

Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar intervened in the peace process in the year 2015 when a Colombian delegation requested him for guidance. Gurudev came at the time when the peace process was undergoing friction. “The then president, Juan Manuel Santos, had put the peace process in the freezer as the FARC had just killed children in the army and blown a petrol tank,” shares Juan Carlos.

When Gurudev met Juan Santos, the president allowed allowed him to meet the FARC leaders and initiate dialogue. Gurudev first met the victims of the conflict in the UN office in Bogota and then the FARC leaders in Havana. In the meeting, the FARC members shared why they started the war and their desire for social justice in Colombia. In turn, Gurudev proposed a revolutionary idea to the FARC leaders - that they fight for their cause by adopting the Gandhian principle of nonviolence. Soon after the meeting, the FARC leaders meditated.

This was on June 26, 2015. Within two days, the FARC, in a joint conference with Gurudev, announced a unilateral ceasefire starting July 20. 

The ceasefire continued for a year. 

In June 2016, the Colombian government and the FARC announced a bilateral ceasefire.

“Thank you everything you have done for the peace process. You have been a great friend and support in the peace process. All your help is very useful and your spiritual guidance is ever so important.” - Juan Manuel Santos, former President

Soon, the ex-guerilla group discussed ways to apply the Gandhian principle of non-violence in a post-agreement scenario in Colombia. They requested The Art of Living to help facilitate reconciliation with victims of the conflict. One such reconciliation process happened between FARC leaders and the families of the congressmen killed by the FARC. The event ended with both parties holding hands and praying for the departed souls. 

Within a few months, in September 2016 the government and the FARC signed a peace agreement which led 7,000 ex-FARC members to surrender arms and 10 ex-FARC leaders to assume seats in the parliament later in July 2018. 

Here is The Art of Living’s timeline of actions in the peace process.

After the peace agreement

The ex-guerilla group has launched their own political party. “Since the peace agreement, there has been a drop in the instances of violence”, says Juan Carlos, Colombian MP from Bogota. Many ex-FARC militants have returned back to their families and are now helping de-mine the country.

“Meeting Sri Sri and The Art of Living was truly a miracle. We will show that we will fulfill the promise we made to him to follow the Gandhian principle of non-violence.” 
- A former FARC commander at the launch of their political party

Yet, most Colombians find it hard to forgive the FARC and in the 2016 plebiscite, voted against the peace agreement. With the current government not supporting the peace process, some members of the FARC have also returned to arms. In such pressing times, The Art of Living continues to work for peace in Colombia by helping victims of the conflict forgive and move forward. As Angela Losada, Director of The Art of Living, Colombia, shares, “This year, we plan to engage with 1,000 members of the indigenous population of Colombia which was the most affected by the FARC’s massacres.”

Till now, The Art of Living has taught meditation to 100 children victims of conflict, 1,100 adult victims, 800 youngsters of the conflict zones, 20 paramilitary leaders (leaders of groups opposing the FARC). 

The results have been heart-warming.

In one of the instances of a forgiveness process facilitated by The Art of Living, Fabiola Perdomo, wife of the congressman killed by the FARC said, “Forgiveness has made me free, cleansed me and it has prepared me to build a new life.” 

At a reconciliation process organized by the Colombian government, Gurudev emphasizing on the importance of forgiveness for the country, said, “The tendency in the civil society is to take revenge - we need to bridge this trust deficit. That's why we started the forgiveness process. Without such a process, the common people will continue to treat the former guerrillas differently. They need to know that FARC people are also victims.”

Perhaps, forgiveness is the only way forward for a country that was riddled with such a complex and long-standing history.