Conflict does not end in a ceasefire or a peace agreement. True peace is only attainable when the social norms, attitudes, and behaviors that led to violence are addressed with communal trauma every person faced in conflict, including ex-combatants. In post-conflict Colombia, one attempt to address these systemic and societal traumas is by using art therapy in Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces for former FARC militants. Art therapists in Colombia are optimistic about reintegration through focusing on communication, memory, acceptance, and self-reflection in culturally driven artistic forms.
The Colombian conflict was a 50-year war involving a multitude of heavily armed guerilla, paramilitary, and governmental groups. Most of the fighting involved the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC. Founded in 1964, the FARC led a campaign based on Leninist-Marxist ideology that promoted revolution from the peasant class of Colombia after years of inequality and economic hardships. They relied on in-depth knowledge of the jungle to cover their activities while requiring members to leave behind their friends and family for the higher cause of bringing true equality to Colombia. During this period, both sides engaged in military tactics such as terrorist attacks, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings, and manipulation of the drug trade that led to widespread human atrocity. To this day, Colombia has one of the world's highest numbers of internally displaced people. The fighting ended in 2016 with the signing of the Peace Accords.
The Peace Process
Hailed as the most progressive peace agreements in history, the Colombian Peace Agreement of 2016 incorporated many of the FARC demands of gender equality, land reclamation programs, and rural development promises. There was a mutual acknowledgment in the years-long negotiations that the reincorporation of former combatants needed addressing. There must be a reason for people to put down the arms that they believed were forced to take up, especially when the people asking them to do so are their perceived oppressors. Disarmament and demobilization need to be backed up by a concrete plan for socioeconomic reintegration that benefits the individual. This was done successfully by two main initiatives: the reformulation of the FARC as a political party to guarantee open political participation and the development of extensive administrative initiatives with the sole purpose of reincorporation. A central part of the administrative portion of this feat was the creation of Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces.
Physical and Psychosocial Barriers
When the Agreement was signed, combatants were buried deep in the jungle, some of which were there for decades. FARC encampments had created new social norms, ideologies, and economic systems over the decades of operation that became engrained in the identities of their members. These individuals wanted peace, but they were also desperately fighting for the egalitarian society promised in the FARC mission. The agreement's reception gave mixed emotions as combatants were allowed to pursue civilian lives they sacrificed for the cause while abandoning the combatant life they built over the years. Logistically these people had to hand over their extensions of power (their weapons) and leave the remote encampments that were home to try and enter the communities they had been attacking. Emotionally, they had to face the bitter fact that all they had done may have been for nothing. The death and losses they inflicted and suffered may have irreparably damaged their chances at being a part of a normally functioning community and done nothing to bring true equality to Colombia.
Civilian communities had strong reservations about former FARC members reentering society. There were valid concerns that the new neighbors would be the very people that killed, kidnapped, or disappeared your loved ones without justice thanks to the amnesty clauses of the Peace Agreement. Now that weapons were not present, the playing field was even and ripe for retribution. These physical and psychological barriers could potentially derail the peace process as tensions threaten the spillover of violence. To help mitigate these circumstances the peace agreement developed 24 quasi-villages or camps called Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces for ex-FARC members. These areas are for ex-combatants and their families to live while undergoing social programs to prepare themselves and their future host communities for complete reintegration.
The Power of Art
One program that has been especially helpful in communal healing has been art therapy. The people needed to repair the fractured identities that the conflict had left them with regardless of which side they fought for or supported. These new identities needed to be rooted in unity, not othering. This process also needed to happen while addressing the psychosocial barriers created by conflict and solidified in peacetime. Art retains a special place in the heart of cultural practices. It made sense to return to the medium to reinvigorate sentiments of societal pride for those that felt abandoned by their communities. When art therapists first started practicing in Colombia, and specifically within these isolated camps of ex-combatants, they adapted their techniques for cultural relevance to the people to normalize their interactions. This typically began within individual households addressing rampant generational traumas that result from the initial trauma of war. Therapists invited into the homes of people who wished to participate would first be introduced to the household over a glass of aguapanela (Colombian beverage) or coffee. The creative process would begin using supplies provided by the therapist or elements of nature gathered by the participant. Tasks would get increasingly specific and group-oriented depending on the individuals involved and the aim of each session.
Art sessions that drew on cultural outlets, such as costureros (a type of embroidery), opened participants to the missions of art therapy: open communication, preservation of memory, acceptance of the past, and self-reflection. For example, when a participant begins working, they must discuss their aims and wants for the final product. This acts as an ice breaker and opens a safe space for dialogue that may bleed into the subconscious reasoning behind why they made an artistic decision. The memory associated with the depiction can surface and be not only respected but preserved after the establishment of safe dialogue. With the articulation and communication of memory replacing its suppression, acceptance is possible from all participants. After sharing an experience, those listening can validate the trauma and internal battles of the storyteller.
One story told in the research of Luisa Mariño García and Jordan S. Potash perfectly exemplifies this process. These scholars conducted sessions between a mother and her former FARC combatant son. During one session, they depicted the scene of their reunion at the Territorial Training and Reincorporation Space they now lived in together after years apart. They began to discuss the setting and various details to add to the painting, but they also began to communicate about the emotions they felt that day and that moment. There was a mutual understanding that the moment was significant for both, but there was a reason it was such an emotional reunion. As they solidified the memory to paper, the stories started to pour out of them. The son discussed his conflicted thoughts with the jungle and how he has bad memories of it and good ones of where he lived a life and feels a certain nostalgia despite knowing it was tainted with violence. The mother spoke of her fear that her two sons on opposites sides of the conflict would accidentally kill one another. Neither denied the other feelings or memories. Instead, they embraced each other and continued to paint. The last step of self-reflection is not something that happens outright in session but one that lives on within the participants. This mother and son can never forget that moment as it lives on within themselves and on paper now.
Art Therapy Today
As with any post-conflict social program, there were serious questions about the sustainability of foreign art therapists entering vulnerable communities in such a personal way. There were concerns about ending the program and understanding cultural practices and experiences as an outsider. They decided the benefits outweighed the possible consequences and adapted their activities culturally and contextually as they continued their work while being aware of how they interacted with the people. As time went on, Colombians began to be trained as art therapists themselves and set up the Colombian Association of Art Therapy, or Ar.Te, while petitioning the Ministry of the Interior to recognize the new profession.
Ar.Te created jobs and opportunities for Colombians to pursue new professions and had lasting effects on society itself within Colombia. As Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces passed their dates for closure in 2019 and became permanent settlements, the people were largely left to fend for themselves. Security and healthcare have become issues in these areas, but the people remain resilient. Many have adapted art therapy and started initiatives to use creative measures to ensure peace. These attempts range from murals promoting environmental consciousness in Carrizal to a female ex-combatant run brewery in Popoyán and multiple costureros initiatives based in Bogotá.
There is a widespread commitment from the people to supply themselves and others with the opportunity to use their hands for creative endeavors that support mental health and social improvement instead of resorting to violence. Art remains a powerful yet underutilized tool for peace and social cohesion in the post-conflict setting. Colombia proves that despite not being a mainstream form of peacebuilding, creative empowerment supports mental health and social development beyond a ceasefire to tackle the subconscious root causes of violence for an individual and a society.
Andrée Salon. 2016. “Art Therapy-Museum Collaborations in Colombia.” American Art Therapy Association. February 24, 2016. https://arttherapy.org/art-therapy-museum-collaborations-in-colombia/.
Colombian Association of Art Therapy. n.d. “What Is Art Therapy.” Colombian Association of Art Therapy. Accessed March 10, 2022. https://www.arteterapiacolombia.org/arteterapia-english.
Elizabeth Yarce. 2019. “Painting For Life.” UN Verification Mission in Colombia. March 2019. https://colombia.unmissions.org/en/painting-life.
Isaac Laguna Munoz. n.d. “The Hope That Artistic and Cultural Education Brings in Post-Conflict Areas.” Humanities and Arts Society. Accessed March 10, 2022. https://humanitiesartsandsociety.org/magazine/the-hope-that-artistic-and-cultural-education-brings-in-post-conflict-areas/.
Mariño García, Luisa, and Jordan S. Potash. 2019. “Art Therapy as Psychosocial Support for FARC Reincorporation.” Journal of Peacebuilding and Development 14 (2): 109–24. https://doi.org/10.1177/1542316619842046.
Nick Kipley. 2022. “A Look Inside a Craft Beer Joint Run by Women Ex-FARC Combatants.” The Bogotá Post. January 14, 2022. https://thebogotapost.com/a-look-inside-a-craft-beer-joint-run-by-women-ex-farc-combatants/49502/.
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Clare is a Master's student in International Relations at the War Studies Department, King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.