Remembering the Colombian Conflict

What is memory?

Memory is not just one fixed concept, there are multiple types of memory and they all play an important role in Colombia’s conflict. Individual memory refers to each individuals person’s recollections. It is often passed on through story telling from person to person. Because of this transmission through people it is shorter than collective memory, it can only survive as long as there are people to continue to tell the story and after they have passed.

Collective or historical memory lives in all of us and continues on indefinitely. Jorn Russen a German historian and philosopher defines historical memory as the way people live in their past and how they generate meaning based on their past experiences. Because cultural memory is curated and achieved, often by the state, it is more difficult to change than individual memory.

Why memory matters in the Colombian context

With 8,650,169 registered victims the Colombian conflict has directly affected more than 12% of the population. This does not include victims who have not registered or those that have been impacted by the conflict in other ways such as the wider economic and social impacts.  The length and breadth of this conflict has resulted in an enormous amount of individual memory.

This individual memory means that different families in different regions have drastically divergent views of the conflict. This is one of the reasons why building collective memory is vital to achieve a common understanding of the conflict across the country.

How Colombian’s are preserving memory

The Victims and Land Restitution Law 1448 of 2011 mandated the creation of National Centre of Historical Memory. The National Centre of Historical Memory is run by the Department of Social Prosperity and produces reports to add to the historical memory of Colombia.

However, there are clear issues with a centre for memory that is funded and run by a Government agency. With the election of the Duque Government we can see a desire to control the narrative about the Colombian conflict. This is nothing new as during the Uribe Government there was an important linguistic change from discussing the conflict as a civil conflict to labelling armed groups (particularly the FARC) as narco-terrorists. This change in language had two important implications, firstly it allowed the Colombian Government to continue to access funds from the United States through Plan Colombia (which had been modified after 9/11 to require funds to go to fighting terrorism). But more importantly for the conception of historical memory labelling Guerilla groups as narco-terrorists delegitimises their actions and legitimise any actions the State takes to respond.

The implications for this in the context of building a clear collective understanding of the Colombian conflict cannot be underestimated. The Colombian people have suffered at the hands of the Government for instance the False Positives scandal where poor or otherwise vulnerable people including minors were murdered by the Government who then portrayed them as FARC members to increase their military statistics.

These atrocities are just as relevant to the conflict of the those of Guerrilla groups, paramilitary and criminal gangs. However, if they are ignored then Colombia’s collective memory will always be incomplete which does not provide a good base for peace-building.

While the board of the board of The Memory, Peace and Reconciliation Centre in Bogota is somewhat insulated from the political whims of elites, there is pressure on this institutions to tell a state-friendly narrative. Hopes for historical memory are best place in smaller more independent organisations.

Professor Pablo Abitbol  spoke to our group about grassroots attempts  at transforming historical memory into collective memory are taking place in the Caribbean Coast by a group called Grupo Regional de Memoria Histórica run by the Bolivar University of Technology in 2015.

This group runs a number of projects to embed historical memory into the collective consciousness of people in the region. These are done through working with communities to understand how they would like to learn about history using their own traditions. The group has produced a number of booklets to help people understand the violence that has taken place.

For instance, the map of Cartagena below shows how the conflict impacted the city of Cartagena, often the violence of the conflict is seen as having taken place in jungles not in the cities. Maps like these are important for developing a sense of ownership of the conflict for people.

Map of Cartagena annotated with past violence. Produced by Grupo Regional de Memoria, Histórica. Available at:

Making sure the next generation understands

An important part of moving individual memory into collective memory is ensuring that children grow up learning about the conflict.

The teaching of History is now mandatory in Colombia thanks to a new bill in 2017 that reverses an earlier decision that removed Colombian History as part of the curriculum. The new curriculum is expected to be launch in 2020. This mirrors developments in New Zealand where earlier this year is was announced that the teaching of New Zealand History will be a mandatory part of the national curriculum from 2022.

The Memory, Peace and Reconciliation Centre in Bogota also seeks to create a better communal understanding of the Colombian Conflict by teaching particularly children above the age of 12 about key events. Curated by qualified teachers the exhibits educate and more importantly give a human face to the conflict to better build a collective memory.

Recordar means to remember but looking at the entomology it could be translated literally as to return with the heart. The Memory, Peace and Reconciliation Center spoke about this and the importance of feeling not just hearing about history.

How the battle for memory plays out on the Streets in Bogotá

While battles to develop historical memory take place in political areas such as congress and the Historical Memory Group there is also another front for this battle – the streets of Bogotá. While exploring the graffiti in the La Candelaria it is clear to see how the fight for space is taking place throughout the city. Walls display not only political disagreements but stark artwork portraying the indigenous people of Colombia and their push to be seen and recognized as the native people of the area.

Graffiti art featuring indigenous people is all around Bogota particularly in the
reas of the city, in a ‘fight for space.”

A continued push to establish a fair and accurate historical memory of the Colombian conflict is vital for the 2016 Peace Agreement to successfully end conflict in Colombia. However, small grassroots organisations are likely to be more successful in this endeavor as they are not under the same political pressures as those funded directly by the Government.

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