Theatre as a Device for Reconciliation in War-Torn Colombia

Editor’s Note: This article includes direct interviews with cast members of Victus: La Memoria, many of whom are Colombians demobilized by the country’s decades-long armed conflict between the government, right-wing paramilitaries and left -wing guerrillas. The author has received permission to publish their personal accounts of the conflict and its repercussions. 

On October 2, 2016 in Colombia, a narrow majority of voters [50,21%] rejected the Peace Agreement signed by the government and the insurgency guerrilla FARC-EP after 52 years of armed conflict. This result may render anyone pessimistic when it comes to the prospect of peace in Colombia. Yet, it is possible to find microcosms within the country that demonstrate genuine reconciliation between opposing parties is possible. In the play Victus: La Memoria, director Alejandra Borrero, known in Colombia for her work as an actress in theatre, film and television, gathers demobilized members from the paramilitary militias, guerrillas, Colombian army and victims of the conflict to create a show that highlights the importance of memory, resilience and reconciliation. ‘Victus,’ means “that which sustains life’’ or “resilience” in Latin, and ‘Memoria’ means “memory” in Spanish.

The armed conflict between the government and insurgency guerrillas began after the creation of the National Front (1958-1974), an agreement brokered by the Liberal and Conservative parties to take turns governing after the war between them. The agreement, however, excluded any political party that was not Liberal or Conservative. Furthermore, the marginalization of rural workers by the Colombian government culminated in the invasion of Marquetalia, one of the “independent republics” comprised of peasants under the influence of the Communist Party. This invasion led to the emergence of the insurgency guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – Army of the People (FARC-EP), then followed by the formation of the National Liberation Army insurgency guerrilla (ELN) in the mid-1960s.

In response to what they saw as “guerrilla invasions of their territories,” some landowners created private armies to “protect their lands.” In the 1980s, these private armies became the unconstitutional paramilitary militias known as the United Self-Defences of Colombia (AUC). With the emergence of cartel drugs and the infiltration of different criminal organizations into government and public service positions, the armed conflict saw a rise in crimes against humanity committed by paramilitary militias, insurgency groups, and the army. Among these crimes were the displacement, assassinations and kidnappings of millions of civilians. Given this reality, adopting a binary viewpoint that sees one sector as “the good guys” and another as “the bad guys” is futile. Yet, in a country that has seen so much bloodshed, it is indispensable to find alternative pathways that can help Colombia transition to a state of peace. Theatre may be one of these pathways.

The script for Victus was put together by Borrero, who took the stories of the different performers and gathered them for a show that erupts with many memories flowing in front of the audience haphazardly. The show begins with the actors, all dressed in white, coming in from behind the audience seats. As they walk towards the stage, they hug different audience members, inviting them to also participate in a process of reconciliation. When the performers get to the stage, they use song, rap, music, dance and monologues in their native tongues to tell their stories. Recognizing the struggles that women had to face during the war, the male performers tell the stories of forced abortions that the female performers had to endure. In this way, they are able to empathize with a situation that they did not have to confront given their sex. One of the most striking moments of the show is a sequence in which the actors perform with their voices sounds that represent a combat in the middle of the jungle, transporting the audience into the battlefield and giving them an idea of what it would feel like to be in the middle of a confrontation.

Before the show started, I went backstage to interview some of the actors. There was a happiness radiating from the faces of every actor and actress as they put on their costumes and makeup and joked with each other. Yet, getting to this stage was not easy for them. Indeed, the day of their first encounter generated fear in all of them. On this day, María Victoria Estrada, the show’s pedagogical advisor, invited all the performers to place one another’s heads on each others’ chests and listen to one another’s hearts, creating an environment that would lead to reconciliation.

“It was a terrible process when we began to tell our stories,” performer Alicia Aguillón, who lost four children and was displaced from her home, said. “My companions had horrible stories. Each time that they told them, I didn’t know anymore if I was crying because of my story or because of theirs.” On meeting with one of the AUC victims, ex-AUC fighter Ana Milena Riveros said: “it was very difficult for me to encounter this victim. But I was raised in a household in which I was mistreated and tortured. As a human being, I made the decision to join this organization. Yet this victim was raped by men from the AUC. As I listened to that friend, I felt unable to look at her in the face. My friend then said to me: I understand you. I forgive you.”

On confronting one of the men belonging to the ELN, which held him captive for around 3 years, army veteran Antonio Erira said:

“It was a strong shock finding myself with a person from a group who held me captive. Upon seeing him, I said to myself, ‘What am I doing here? I’m crazy!’ Blood went up in me. Every inch of me tightened and I wanted to run away, but Alejandra’s handling and that of her professional and pedagogical team was very asserted. They knew how to handle the situation, because it wasn’t just my feelings, but also the feelings of this one, and that one. So, we all began to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person. And we all ended up crying for what happened to the other.”

Alicia also highlights Alejandra’s mentorship: “It was magical that I did not feel anger against my fellow companions. I do not know what happened, Alejandra’s love, her hugs, her tenderness, I had never had that because I was always in the war, always losing. And she taught me above all to love myself.”

Former FARC member Alejandra Hernández also thinks the experience in this show taught her to love herself: “This project helped me a lot, not just because it cured my wounds, but also because I learned to share my pain, to put myself in the shoes of others, to understand that I wasn’t the only person who had suffered in the world.” Hernández was recruited when she was very young. During the show, she sings, “In my mother’s womb, I already carried a rifle.” On the results of the process, Antonio says, “We understood that we are people of flesh and bone that, despite being put in different groups, do not have the fault to have belonged to the group that we belonged to, but simply were obliged [to fight one another] by the war situation that a few invented. As our song [from the show] says: While laypeople kill one another, war fattens a few. Today, we are like a family that supports one another.”

Not everyone in the country, however, is necessarily enthusiastic with the idea that art can play a role in helping someone go through grief. One audience member in the seminar ‘Art, Bereavement and Reconciliation,’ organized by the Historical Memory Centre at the National University in Bogotá, claimed that having victims use art to go through grief and tell their stories is disrespectful and exploitative because this confrontation is something intimate, and should therefore be private. Yet, such a radical statement was countered by Ana Milena:

“Art does have to do with confronting grief. If it wasn’t for art, it would not be as easy to talk about pain. I cannot return to my land. I cannot see my friends. News channels put up barriers that don’t allow us to listen to one another. But Victus helped us and allowed us to listen to one another. And while perhaps forgiveness does take time, it is the only thing that allows me to speak and to speak of reconciliation.”

In the play’s ending, all actors sit down under a see-through carp while constellations of stars are projected on the screen behind them. Each of them states what they dream of. They then start unrolling a long piece of white fabric and pass it along between them. This fabric is then passed on to the different rows of audience members, symbolically inviting them to also participate in the changing of Colombian society. The playwright and stage director Bertolt Brecht once said, “It is not enough to demand insight and informative images of reality from the theatre. Our theatre must stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in changing reality.” I believe that initiatives like Victus will be crucial when it comes to shaping a new reality in Colombia, one of peace and reconciliation.

José Camargo is in his last semester at McGill University, studying Philosophy with Honours and an additional major in Psychology. Born in Bogotá, Colombia, he is very interested in Colombian politics and culture, and expects to go to film school after graduating to make films about his country – albeit with a philosophical and psychological twist.

Photos courtesy of Carlos Mario Lema

Works Consulted:

Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetics. Translated by J. Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1954.

Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica. ¡Basta Ya! Colombia: memorias de guerra y dignidad. Resumen. Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional de Colombia, 2013.