In the 20 years I have been a priest in Colombia, I have lived with armed conflict.
I have had to deal with all the armed groups - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as the paramilitaries – and feared for my life many times. Since late November 2016, a peace deal has been in place, but a conflict that has raged for over 50 years cannot be resolved overnight.
We need more participation to move forward. If we want to build a sustainable and long-lasting peace, women and children, indigenous and marginalised communities – people whose land has been stolen and whose rights have been abused – need to be included.
A future is possible where children grow up with a different quality of life. Where young people do not join armed groups but can achieve their dreams. Where there is more development, and the state is not one of the main causes of conflict.
But there is still a long way to go, both as a society and for individuals. Being a victim of armed conflict forces you to make certain decisions. Either you withdraw, and are no longer close to other people, or the pain strengthens your hope, and makes you take the hand of the other person to walk together.
If you’re a priest who is committed to the people, you have to make yourself a target of the armed groups. I was singled out and threatened many times as I stood alongside people forced to flee their homes, remained with those who stayed and endured, and picked up dead bodies, even when armed groups forbade us.
In September 1998, paramilitaries killed one of my companions, Miguel. He lived just an hour away. The following year a paramilitary leader said: “We have to kill a priest from Quibdó,” my diocese. You can imagine how this made all the priests in the area feel – especially the priests in rural parishes like mine.
In 2000, many armed group members, accompanied by over 700 people, came into Bagadó, where I was the parish priest. By this point, I was thinking about leaving, but I was motivated to stay, despite the danger. I never took sides, and this acted as a kind of armour.
One day I went to a village where the ELN had kidnapped some people. I told them, “You are the ELN, the National Liberation Army! You need to liberate them! Free them!” Three days later, a parishioner told me, “Father, you’re so brave.” I was saying to myself, “If you only knew how I was trembling inside.” I always felt fear, but I remember Nelson Mandela, who said bravery is not to be fearful but to conquer the fear.
I remember thinking at that time, “Maybe they’re going to kill me.” The same year, my late mother wrote, asking me to come home. Instead, I asked my parents to visit me for three days. At the end my mother said, “You want to stay, right? Okay, but if you think your life is in danger, come home.”
Later things became even worse, culminating in the massacre of Bojayá, where more than 70 people died after a bomb was thrown into a church. There was a time when I couldn’t speak about this. I tried, but I couldn’t. During the hardest time, I would simply write down dates, facts and names.
Now I use art as a shield in difficult moments. I play the piano or guitar when I can’t sleep, and compose songs when I need to get fear out of my mind. I speak with the Bible in hand. There are still threats to priests from armed groups.
For me, peace is more than just a declaration. It is the fruit of justice. I’ve spent the last 10 years advocating for a better future, building up contacts, providing information and following up on local agreements. In the last three years, I’ve been reading about the peace agreement and making suggestions and proposals.
In December 2015 I took part in a meeting where the FARC were asking for forgiveness for the crimes they had committed in Bojayá. Being there with more than 500 people, listening to one of the FARC commanders, was unforgettable – not because they were seeking forgiveness, but because of the relief felt by their victims.
To see someone who used to be an armed fighter, who is no longer armed and no longer has a group behind him: that was the moment of transformation.
Fr Sterlin Londoño is a parish priest in the diocese of Quibdó, Colombia. Over the last twenty years, he has been at the forefront helping communities to advocate for their rightful land and works alongside the youth group, COCOMOPOCA, and UK aid agency CAFOD.