Fr. Leonel Narvaez

Founder and director of La Fundación para la Reconciliación | Colombia

Father Leonel is the founder and director of La Fundación para la Reconciliación, which was heavily involved in organizing the “Reintegration and Prevention” conference in Colombia in Fall 2007. Father Leonel’s organization works on reintegrating ex-combatants into their communities through providing individual and group psycho-social services. In 2006, La Fundacion para la Reconciliación received an Honorable Mention for the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education.

Interview with Fr. Leonel Narvaez

by Charishma Chotalia

CC: Could you tell me a little bit about the conflict in Colombia and your experience with the different armed forces?

FL: Our conflict has been going on for over 50 years. So far, the commonest strategy used has been the military solution. This strategy has had very little impact and some very fragile successes. We believe that behind this conflict for the last two centuries there has been a sequence of angers, hate and accumulated urge for vengeance that has kept violence as the most recurrent resource. Thus, we feel that the only way out is through political negotiation and reconciliation. It might still take another five years or more, but there has been a growth in awareness of the need for reconciliation. So far, over 50,000 ex-combatants – most of whom are child soldiers – have laid down their arms in Colombia. However, a process of mere demobilization of combatants is not enough. There is need of reintegration and reconciliation.

In Colombia we have had the most progress with the leftist ex-combatants. They have been able to reintegrate ex-combatants more effectively than rightist groups. Their main motivation when seeking reintegration is the realization that violence did not bring them anywhere. They have realized that all of the years they have spent in subversive groups have been lost to them forever. Because rightist groups do not have as much discipline as leftist groups and are afflicted by all kind of addictions (alcohol, narcotic drugs, cigarettes, sex) it is difficult to help them come out of their situation.

CC: Could you tell me about how your organization’s work relates to the reintegration of child soldiers?

FL: In the past five years we have been working with the Colombian government to reintegrate ex-combatants. Most of them have been recruited into subversive groups since childhood. Although they are now grown up, they still remember and tell us about the situations they faced in the subversive groups – situations that many kids still face. Sowhat we do with these ex-combatants is try to change their “life project.” Since their “life project” before consisted of violence and war, my organization is now training them to become leaders and workers of peace. And to accomplish our goal we have specific programs that we are developing in our organization. In particular, La Fundación para la Reconciliación works with children older than 15 years of age. We use the approach of psycho-social interventions and work in conjunction with another organization that trains ex-combatants with practical skills to prepare them for employment.

For our psycho-social support program we spend a lot of time training people on how to provide support. For the first few months, after the ex-combatants leave leftist groups, we provide them with personal psychological assistance. After two or three months have passed, we start providing them with more group assistance and work on building up their New Life Project. So, they work with us in the morning and work with the other organization that provides them with labor skills in the afternoon.

>CC: Do you have any stories you could share about children your organization has worked with?

FL: One ex-combatant named Jawing joined the paramilitaries as a child. Before joining the armed forces he lived first with his father and then with his mother, neither of whom cared about him too much. His father left him with relatives all of the time and his mother left him home alone with hardly any food every day. One day when he was still living with his father the guerilla forces came to his town and killed the police and destroyed their headquarters. Shortly after that he moved in with his mother. However, he decided he could not go on existing with the way she treated him and decided to join the paramilitaries. Two months after enlisting, he was called into combat. The soldiers put him to the test, against his will, and made him torture and bury three guerillas. After a while, he started to recruit other children from his village. One day, while he was at the paramilitary camp, he saw a few girls who had been recruited into the paramilitary forces. He thought one of them was especially beautiful and was going to make her have sex with him. However, it turned out that the girl he liked was actually working for a different side and was going to kill the military commander. So Jawing was forced to torture and kill her and her friends. Eventually, he was captured and because he was underage, he was put into a reintegration program. Now he is in the process of gaining the skills necessary to produce audiovisual materials. He has also prepared to become a leader of peace and has worked with kids in a camp who are looking to get their high school diplomas. In that camp Jawing and others are also looking to find better ways to resolve conflicts and to stop the recruitment of child soldiers. Most importantly, they are working on spreading the word that the war in Colombia offers nothing but slavery and death to its people.

CC: Could you tell me about how your organization’s work with child soldiers ties in to your involvement with the Goldin Institute?

FL: A group of us from Colombia went to Amritsar, India for the Goldin Institute’s conference on Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation. While there we became acquainted with Ms. Goldin and shortly after that, we started discussing plans to organize a conference in Colombia. We decided on a theme of violence, children and reintegration and the question of conflict in Colombia, and from there, the conference just took off.

Our main interest in holding the conference in Colombia was to use the conference as a jumping off point to launch a national network of peace organizations which we are calling Concordia. We are also working together to make a big intervention in schools around the country and universities to develop a program for the prevention of the recruitment of students.

Since the conference ended, Concordia has been meeting every two months to review its progress. It seems that through our efforts more and more organizations – both at a national and grassroots level – are joining efforts to build a culture of reconciliation into their own projects and lives.

CC: Before we close out this interview, is there anything else you would like to add?

FL: I would like to bring more attention to a war that has been growing in the past few months. My concern lies with the recruitment of children for a new kind of liberation army from Venezuela called the Bolivariano Liberation Movement. We have heard of children being recruited in the boundaries of Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. So far the only knowledge we have of this situation is through increasing rumors but I think it is important to let the public know that these types of things are happening so we can find ways to prevent them.