SYDNEY – Leaving their guns behind, a group of former guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are taking part in an international rafting competition this week in Australia, bearing a message of hope and peace.
“We are new to rafting, we do it with a lot of love, but more important than that is to bring a message of peace to this country and every land that we tread on,” Frellin Noreña, a former FARC combatant, told EFE on the banks of the Tully river in northeastern Australia.
Noreña is part of a group of five former FARC guerrillas and three residents of Miravalle, in Colombia’s Caqueta department, who were invited by the International Rafting Federation to compete against nearly 50 teams in Tully between May13-20.
For 50 years, Miravalle was the backdrop for FARC activities. However, towards the end of 2016, the armed group signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government led by President Juan Manuel Santos (Nobel Peace Prize winner for that year), which led to some 13,000 fighters laying down their arms.
A group of the former guerrillas from Miravalle received professional training in rafting as a part of a UN project in Colombia to facilitate their reintegration into society.
“It is a special and beautiful project about the possibility brought by peace. Around six years ago, many of them were in prison or in the wilderness, and now, like they themselves say, they changed their rifles for paddles,” Mauricio Artiñano of the UN mission in Colombia told to EFE.
Amid rain and strong winds at the shores of the Tully river, the former guerrillas do not lose their good humor, as – according to them – their real challenge is being accepted in Colombia in this current time of peace.
For them, reintegration is “complex” as they return to a society that they tried to unsuccessfully change through armed struggle, but now accept it because they understand the “need for peace,” said Noreña who had been sentenced for possessing explosives.
The road to peace is difficult in Colombia, where internal conflict – arising from the activities of guerrilla groups, paramilitaries, drug traffickers and state agents – left more than 260,000 people dead, 60,000 missing and 7.1 million displaced over 53 years, according to official figures.
On account of this, a section of the people reject the reintegration of former guerrillas to civilian life, and dozens of former members of the FARC, along with activists, have died at the hands of the paramilitaries in conflict zones.
With all their problems and challenges, “Colombia is an example of success, an inspiration for the world with its peace process and post-war situation,” Artiñano said. “It is an example because there was more than 50 years of warring and it was brought to an end with a negotiated and political solution, and the rafting team shows that peace is possible.”