One of ten finalists for the 2017 Global Pluralism Award, Leyner Palacios Asprilla says: “I see forgiveness as not feeding the hatred and vengeance feelings we have, which do nothing more than blind us.”
July 18, 2017: We are sitting at one of the meeting rooms of the Canadian Embassy in Bogotá. We are waiting for the roundtable presentation of Leyner Palacios Asprilla. He is no politician, and he is no public figure, but he is certainly one of the most important voices representing victims in Colombia.
Leyner Palacios Asprilla is one of ten finalists for the 2017 Global Pluralism Award which seeks to recognise the work of extraordinary individuals towards building more inclusive societies across the world.
He founded the Comité por los Derechos de las Víctimas de Bojayá (Committee for the Rights of Victims of Bojayá), giving voice to over 11,000 victims of the Colombian conflict that live in the municipality of Bojayá, Chocó.
Daniel Cerván-Gil, the Senior Program Officer at the Global Centre for Pluralism explains that Palacios has been chosen from over 200 nominations from 43 countries. He says, “He is a victim of conflict who has decided not to be victimised, but to empower himself and to become a leader for his community, and this, the judges have estimated, is what makes him a person worthy of acknowledgement.”
Three of the ten finalists will receive support as well as a prize of CAD$50,000 from the centre, whose mission is to promote diversity, fostering dialogue and researching the drivers and impediments to social cohesion.
The town of Bojayá suffered a terrible massacre in May 2002 when the FARC launched gas cylinder bombs at a church full of civilians that the AUC paramilitary group was using as a human shield.
Leyner Palacios Asprilla, who lost 32 of his relatives that day, has worked with a commitment to reconciliation and the acknowledgement of the rights of all the victims. He is a community leader who has managed to unite the indigenous and afro communities in Bojayá.
Allan Culham, business development manager for the Canadian Embassy, said reaching the final sends a powerful message to the international community about the power of pluralism to attain peace and reconciliation in societies that have been affected by the conflict. “One of the worst atrocities in this conflict occurred in Bojayá, and the fact that a Colombian citizen, Leyner Palacios Asprilla, has been considered for this award is a very important step in the acknowledgement of the current peace process.” He concluded, “This honor expresses the right message at the right time to all Colombians about the need for peace, and reconciliation.”
Culham and Cerván-Gil were not the only high profile figures singing the praises of Palacios. Guillermo Fernández, the Deputy Representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who has worked closely with Palacios and the Committee for the Rights of Victims of Bojayá, believes that this award could be a symbol of what is to come in terms of building peace in Colombia.
He says Palacios succeeded, against all odds, in an isolated area where the only presence of the state has been the police force, and where there are still armed groups. He has helped victims to overcome their fears, have the courage to get organised and demand their rights are respected, and demand reparations.
“Leyner Palacios Asprilla has a great responsibility not only for what he has achieved so far, but because he can become a model for other territories in Colombia,” stated Fernández. He emphasised the need to have positive leaders who approach their fears from a positive perspective. He also said the eyes of the world are upon Colombia; the FARC are liable of course, but it is on the ground that peace is built, with the victims as the main actors. Leyner has empowered people in a positive and brave manner.
When it came to Palacios’ turn to speak, he tells a story of forgiveness and reparation that make it clear why he has been shortlisted for such a prestigious award.
“We went to Havana two years ago for a completely different reason, and I was shocked when these FARC members approached and said ‘we want your forgiveness.’ These tough guys want to take responsibility for what they did and came to us to ask for forgiveness,” he said.
“We did not say anything at the time, but we went back to the communities, to talk to the people and see whether they agreed to listen to this request of FARC. We were surprised by the affirmative answer from the communities, but also by the way they empowered themselves, and said they would only do it under certain conditions, one of them being, for example, that this would not become a media show, or that it would not be used in any way for political benefit.”
He concludes, “We held various meetings and this allowed for all stakeholders to change their behaviour, and it showed us reconciliation was actually possible.”
We asked him about forgiveness, from his perspective as a victim. “Forgiveness is the possibility to be at ease with myself. I don’t see forgiveness as a favour you’re doing to the aggressor. Many Colombians probably see this as if I am doing FARC a favour by forgiving them. I see it as not feeding the hatred and vengeance feelings we have, which do nothing more than blind us,” he explains.
“Human beings are selfish by nature; I see forgiveness as an opportunity to withdraw from that selfishness, and something that gives us that strength to go on. When I see my daughters I think I have to forgive myself because if I spread violence, these kids are not going to have a more peaceful environment.”
Leyner Palacios Asprilla has witnessed decades of violence. He talked about the armed presence in the region, going back to the end of the 90s. He took us through memories of violated women and rivers with dead bodies, and how it was as late as 2002 that Colombia could really see the tragedy the indigenous communities were living.
He says it was very hard for him to see how, even though the indigenous communities wanted to help after the massacre, they were not allowed to do it. They went to where the paramilitaries were to try and have a dialogue, and they were rejected. They went to the guerrillas and they were also rejected. He reflects: “Are we going to delve in our pain, in the memory of our tragedy, in the war, or are we going to do something for those who are alive?”
Leyner Palacios Asprilla does everything he can to ensure that other Colombians “don’t have to live what we had to live.” And his sense of community is so strong that when someone wishes him good luck to make it to the final three, he replied with a smile and said, “Good luck to us!” – meaning we are all one country, and as he later would also put it, we are all in the same boat.
One of the key aspects of Palacios’ initiative has been the fact that everybody has a chance to be heard. Nothing in Bojayá is done without the consensus of the whole community. For him, reaching the final and possibly winning the award are an opportunity to transform the pain of the victims into concrete mechanisms to encourage unity, to reweave the social tapestry, to build more inclusive communities.
If he wins, there are three main areas in which he would like to use the prize money: supporting women and children who have suffered a different type of violence that has all too often been invisible; supporting the 34 indigenous communities and 18 Afro-Colombian communities in the region to provide viable health and education solutions; and providing capital to begin construction of a centre for peace. The centre would be right next to the church which suffered the attacks, and would stand as a symbol of the reconciliation.
Palacios returns to the topic of health and education when I ask him about infrastructure. Sir John Alderdice, one of the key figures in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday agreement in Ireland, said peace cannot be sustained if no roads are build in rural areas for people to take their products to the cities, and I ask Leyner whether he agrees. He says that sadly, there are still parts of Colombia where there is no medical service, nor teachers, nor power, which prevents the people in these communities from communicating with the rest of the country. Colombia has a good chance to change this, but corruption levels have to decrease, as well as bureaucracy, and this means we are not only guaranteeing the rights we are all entitled to, but we are decreasing violence in the regions.
Reaching the final three would have a huge impact on Bojayá and on Colombia. So, good luck to Leyner Palacios Asprilla and good luck to us!
There are nine other finalists from various countries, including Fundación Renacer in Bolivia who are working to create an understanding between the indigenous and the Bolivian legal systems; Alice Waimiru Nderitu who is a mediator of ethnic conflicts in Nigeria and Kenya through the perspective of gender; and Hand Talk, a Brazilian initiative to offer automatic translations of spoken Brazilian into Brazilian sign language for a community of about 8 million people.
By Ángela Forero-Aponte