The Common Good

Good News from Colombia: Rescue of FARC Hostages

Its been months since I´ve written anything about the current events in Colombia. But I can't let "the hug the country has been waiting for" slip by without comment.

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My infant daughter Amara and I were at the deli counter when the news broke. A current ran through the grocery store causing eruptions of joy. Ingrid Betancourt, former Presidential candidate, the three U.S. contractors and 11 others kidnapped by the FARC guerrilla group were freed this afternoon.

See reports in The New York Times and Colombia´s paper of record, El Tiempo.

An hour later as Amara nursed, I listened to interviews with mothers and other family members of the recently released. Ingrid, beloved symbol of the kidnapped, was held captive for more than six years. The U.S. contractors for more than four. A number of the Colombian uniformed officers released were kidnapped over 10 years ago. The visceral responses to the electrifying news of freedom doesn´t lend itself to tidy sound bites for radio interviews. The sobs and exclamations were beautifully stirring. Upon delivery to a military base, an emaciated Ingrid gingerly climbed down from the plane and fell into her mother´s embrace. She choked, "no more tears, mommy." I squeezed my little Amara tight.

The rescue is being hailed as an "impeccable military operation." According to news reports, Colombian intelligence infiltrated the FARC leadership and not a shot was fired in the rescue mission. If media sources are accurate, the Colombian military essentially tricked the guerrilla into handing over four of the highest profile kidnap victims and 11 soldiers and police. Human Rights Watch congratulated the military for carrying out the rescue without any civilian causalities or otherwise violating international humanitarian law.

By all accounts this largest and oldest guerrilla group in Latin America is weakened, and clearly the Colombian military is at a strong point. The U.S. has helped to ensure as much. These military achievements are in line with U.S. military strategists´ application of an El Salvador model in Colombia. As such, the FARC would be forced to the negotiating table. But at what cost, paid in human lives and quality of life?

Ingrid exclaimed, "this is a sign of peace!" Could it be? While this was an intelligence and not a military rescue in the traditional sense, recent events force reflection on my values and sense of the fundamental direction of history regarding military solutions. As is common, many of the jubilant declarations praising the military with religious overtones created dissonance with my beliefs, principles and politics: "Glory be to (Colombia´s military) intelligence! Glory be to the army soldiers!" ... "God blessed (this rescue operative), but not just God, Uribe blessed it! Yes, long live Colombia ! We are winning the war!"

As a Colombian army general noted, the mission could have turned out differently. At the risk of sounding like the relentless critic, the 15 hostages and the operatives who bore great risk to rescue them could all have been killed. Had the scenario played out differently the FARC may not have experienced yet another humiliating blow. Colombian President Uribe´s reelection campaign would not have this huge boost.

The threat of destructive force as an immediate strategy remains a problem. Military successes could lead to surrender and even armistice, but they should not be confused with lasting peace. As we have experienced with the paramilitary process, a settlement between the warring factions that does not provide for truth and justice, repentance and forgiveness may betray Colombia´s populace. A formal resolution that does not prioritize education, health, housing and other investments will not deliver the conditions necessary for dignified life for the majority poor. In the midst of the collective euphoria sparked by the release there are many questions. Which are the right ones to be asking?

Ambiguity and ambivalence aside, I am jubilant with those reunited with family once again. I´d hug the three U.S. military contractors myself, if I could.

It is wonderful to share good news from Colombia on the armed conflict front!

Janna Hunter-Bowman works for Mennonite Central Committee in Bogotá, Colombia, as the coordinator of the Documentation and Advocacy Program for Justapaz, the peace and justice ministry of the Colombian Mennonite Church.

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