As part of a reintegration and reconciliation process after the historic signing of the 2016 Peace Accord in Colombia between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), five ex-FARC combatants and three members of community received rafting training from a Costa Rican outfitter to spearhead an ecotourism project in Miravalle, Colombia and formed the Rafting for Peace initiative. The Rafting for Peace team was formally recognized by the Colombian government and international community and was invited to participate in the World Rafting Championships on the Tully River in Queensland, Australia in May 2019.
During their time in Australia, the team visited the Rotary Peace Centre and the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (APR2P) at the University of Queensland (UQ). At UQ, the team engaged in peacebuilding activities through a mix of intercultural dialogue exchange, education, and community building events - one of which was the Colombian Café.
As a Rotary Peace Fellow, Dialogue Facilitator, and Mediator, I had the honor to design and facilitate the Colombian Café event. The objective of the Café was to provide an opportunity for rafting team members, United Nations staff, and the UQ community to engage in dialogue about reincorporation, reconciliation, and everyday peacebuilding. This enhanced student experience, skill building, and networking related to peace and international development. It also served as an opportunity for the rafting team to share their experiences and learn about Australian conflict, culture, and sport, and for the Colombian community to connect and learn together. Participants increased capacities to engage in intercultural exchange, understanding, and active listening. Through communicating, we strengthened relationships and resilience to build community. An unanticipated outcome was when real-time reconciliation occurred...
The reconciliation process was possible because the participants had the courage to be vulnerable to ask questions and share about their experiences. Many UQ participants were Colombian nationals who were impacted by the conflict. One participant pulled me aside and shared their experience, having lost family members due to violence perpetrated by former FARC-EP members. When they shared the story at the group table, tears were shed, hearts were opened, and human connection enabled real-time reconciliation. Throughout the event, there were many similar moments at each table where people shared stories, smiles, and tears. In the end, a sense of possibility and peace the emerged only because the participants moved through difficult feelings and memories and were able to share as part of the healing, reconciliation, and peacebuilding process.
While there are still challenges to building sustainable peace in Colombia, and personal and community healing and reconciliation is a process, the event was part of a larger process to build everyday peace one relationship at a time. This would not have been possible without the support of the Rafting for Peace team, the APR2P team and student coalition, Rotary Peace Fellow and my colleague and friend Isabella Sinisterra, Mauricio Artiñano and the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, UQ students and staff volunteers, UQ Latin American Student Association, Latin House, The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the The UQ School of Political Science and UQ School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
To learn about and support the Rafting for Peace team, check out this video on their Facebook page:
Learn about the UN Verification Mission’s work here:
About the APR2P Centre: https://r2pasiapacific.org/
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Hi, I'm Michelle, a Researcher & Educator focused on the nexus of health, development, and peacebuilding. You can also follow me on Twitter @michelle_helman