After four years of negotiations, the peace accord brokered between President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leaders known as Timoleón Jiménez—nom de guerre: Timochenko—and Iván Márquez has finally been implemented. Colombians are supposed to be enjoying the fruits of peace. But reconciliation has been difficult to accept for a country with such a fiery legacy of violence: a shroud over almost a quarter million lives lost during half a century, and the gun that pointed so many toward diaspora. Every Colombian family has either been a victim or has known one.
From 2012 to 2016, I traveled to Havana several times while researching a novel, and came face-to-face with several FARC war criminals I recognized from the Colombian media at home. These men and women were always filmed and photographed wearing military fatigues, carrying weapons, with grim expressions. In Havana, they dressed in guayaberas, linen pants, and sundresses. There were bounties on FARC heads worldwide, but Cuba was neutral ground.
Victims of the conflict were flown to Havana to testify as part of the peace negotiations. FARC leaders have repeatedly gone on record expressing no remorse for their crimes—terrorism, kidnappings, murder, recruiting children to be soldiers, maiming and torture—justifying it all as part of the group’s military and ideological mission. But a friend who worked with the Colombian delegation told me that upon hearing directly from victims and their families about a carnage that included infants and the elderly, the FARC officials looked visibly moved.
For years, the burden of granting forgiveness to those who had never asked for it fell strictly on the Colombian people. But last year, the FARC offered a formal general apology “to all the victims of the conflict.” They have also gone on to issue more specific apologies for “the great pain” inflicted upon nearly 25,000 kidnapped people, the 2002 attack on Bojaya where forty-eight children were killed, and the 1994 massacre of La Chinita, where rebels left thirty-five dead.
In 2016, as the negotiations in Havana were coming to a close, Portuguese photographer Eduardo Leal attended an NGO meeting in Colombia, where he is based, and heard about an extraordinary group of athletes training for the upcoming Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Leal, exhausted by the overwhelmingly negative news reports on the conflict, was interested in exploring how citizens who were once viewed as victims had become top-performing athletes.
Despite this new historic peace, in Leal’s images we find a portrait of a nation of open wounds. Colombia has the highest rate of internally displaced people in the world, numbering over 7 million, such as Maritza, whose family was forced to abandon their guerilla-threatened village near Medellín. Blind and struggling to care for her young daughter, a friend encouraged her to try running. Though she’d never heard of the Olympics, Maritza took home a bronze medal in Rio in the 1,500-meter competition.
Many of the athletes Leal photographed were wounded by landmines, a national problem that the peace accord committed to addressing. There is Jonathan, who lost his right leg and is now captain of the national men’s volleyball team, and Edwin, who lost a hand while playing with an antipersonnel mine as a child and who went on to win a bronze medal in men’s cycling. Others were paralyzed by bullets, such as Moises, forty-one, who was shot six times in the neck and spine by paramilitaries while working as a cattle farmer in Santa Marta, falling into a deep depression after becoming paralyzed and losing a leg. It was after meeting other victims with far worse disabilities that Moises found the courage to face his new life, becoming a world-champion swimmer on his way to his third Paralympics where he took home a bronze medal.
Leal says that each of the athletes came to a point at which they understood how profoundly their injuries had altered their fates, and in many cases considered suicide before finding the strength—through their communities and other victims—to reaffirm their lives through sports. And despite Colombia’s lack of public infrastructure for handicap accessibility and occasional social prejudices, the athletes feel no shame for their traumas. Oscar, left paraplegic after being shot seven times by Pablo Escobar’s gunmen while working as a bodyguard in Medellín, and now a wheelchair-basketball world champion, says, “The accident was a blessing that made me a better, happier man, and made me appreciate more my life and my family. If I was going to be born tomorrow, I would want to be born in a wheelchair.”
All of the athletes supported the peace agreement, feeling that “there was already too much blood spilled and too many lives lost in the conflict.” Most of them had not only lost limbs or endured permanent injuries, but also had friends and family members killed during the years of war. “But,” Leal adds, “the majority think the peace process is a long path and that the violence and conflict in Colombia will not be resolved just with the signing of a paper, but with a change in the mentality of the Colombian people.”
Eduardo Leal’s extraordinary photographs provide a glimpse into Colombia’s pain and loss. The athletes’ bodies are forever changed, though the true pit of their sorrows remains hidden. Through their athleticism, we see their resilience, strength, and determination to flourish despite what was stolen from them, and we learn that as a country and as a people, we must look with hope to this hard-earned and imperfect peace.
As Joe—paralyzed by two bullets in the neck and abdomen by a paramilitary gang, but now the current national champion in shot put and javelin—told Leal, “We must be peaceful, forgive, but never forget. I will never forget because every day I have to sit on this chair.”
— Patricia Engel