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Colombian Student Uses Grant to Promote Reconciliation

Santiago Navia with Colombian citizens
Colombian citizens tell their stories through art with the help of Santiago Navia ’17 (center).

Citizens of the South American country of Colombia are anxiously awaiting Oct. 2. That's the date they will vote on a referendum to activate a peace agreement brokered to end a bloody 50-year conflict between the Colombian government and the rebel group known as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

"There are many people working for peace," said Davidson College senior Santiago Navia '17. Thanks to a grant from the Davis Scholars Projects for Peace program, Navia is one of them.

Growing up in a peaceful urban environment, Navia has never personally witnessed the violence that has torn apart the countryside of his native country for decades. He enjoyed a privileged childhood, attending an American-run K-12 school, and earning admission to Davidson.

But he is a passionate advocate for peace, and watching the situation in his homeland unfold from afar has been frustrating. He felt a calling to promote the "Yes" campaign for peace, which was launched to bolster support for the agreement. Davidson College gave Navia the means to do so.

A mathematics major, Navia found out about the college's affiliation with the Kathryn W. Davis Projects for Peace program and applied for one of its approximately 100 annual grants that go to college undergraduates with ideas for building peace.

He filed his proposal last January, and found out in March that he had received one of the $10,000 awards. Navia's brother, Enrique, who is a student at the University of Caldas in Colombia, was interested in social work and eager to get involved. A member of CEDAT, a research center that has studied the conflict, violence and social relationships, Enrique helped recruit people at the university who also had a long history of promoting peace.

Program for Peace

Santiago flew to Colombia at the conclusion of the spring term to begin work on plans for a three-day "encounter" that brought together about 65 people who had been touched by the violence in different ways. The participants met face-to-face and engaged in creative and artistic activities that promoted dialogue and encouraged reconciliation.

"We aimed to show that reconciliation was possible within the scope of the peace accords," Navia said. "We wanted to show there was hope, that even after 50 years of war and pain and hate, and 7 million displaced and thousands killed, that people can patch up those torn relationships and live together."

The 65 participants represented demobilized ex-combatants, families of victims of extrajudicial executions, families displaced due to the violence, and representatives of social organizations and universities. The project began with pre-encounter informal visits with those invited to participate. That proved to be a valuable step in helping the participants feel at ease when they finally came together July 2-4 near the city of Manizales.

Through the encounter, Navia said he attempted to create collective memory of the violence so the situation won't be repeated in the future.

"The encounter brought people together to share their experiences in a space where others listened to them and empathized," he said.

Navia and other organizers developed a detailed schedule of artistic workshops of theatre, writing, painting, dance, knitting, music and other expressive endeavors.

"The arts help people retell their stories," he said. "People can express their feelings, re-visit their pain, and incorporate their past into their current lives. It can make them stronger."

The organizers quickly abandoned the formal schedule in favor of allowing participants to experience the artistic activities organically. At the conclusion of the encounter, the groups shared skits or explanations of their deliberations and creations.

"At the wrap up session where we all said goodbye, we recognized it hadn't been easy to revisit the pain caused by the war, but there was hope that if we, in this space, could show that reconciliation was possible, we believed it could be done in other places as well," Navia said.

Post-Conflict Era

Back in Davidson, Navia is closely watching political developments as the Oct. 2 referendum draws nigh. If it passes as he hopes, the need for peace building will remain.

"Our aim is to continue the project through the transition period," he said. "We will keep exploring how people handle the challenges of the post conflict era."

In fact, he notes that members of his encounter group have maintained contact and continue to try to heal the social tissue damaged by the war.

"After the encounter, it was amazing to see the civil ties strengthened," he said. "The people we worked with didn't walk away from the experience, but have continued to engage in activities."

Several of the women involved invited others into their homes for meals, while another group staged a play in a public area of town. And they are not alone.

"Other people who are campaigning are using what we've done to show that it's not just a governmental effort, that many people and groups support the 'yes,'" he said.

Members of the group are creating a 20-minute documentary video and a 100-page book of testimonies and photographs. It is dedicated to the many people who worked quietly for peace, and those who lost their lives doing so. The book and video will be available in Colombia, and will be presented at Davidson in the fall.