As a foreigner, I always get the ¿De donde eres? (Where are you from?) question from cab drivers in Colombia. After a small chitchat about where exactly in the globe my country is and Imelda Marcos’ 3,000 pairs of shoes (which seem to be the usual thing they can recall about the Philippines), the conversation would usually turn to the traffic.
People from this bustling capital, Bogotá, like to complain about the traffic in their city. Imagine their surprise when I say that it is not bad actually, because in Manila, the traffic crisis turns our main streets into carparks until dawn (and the public transport system and the state of sidewalks and bike paths are nowhere near that of Bogotá’s). Declared by Waze as having the worst traffic in the world, Manila could supposedly become uninhabitable in four years if the crisis is not solved. Yes, traffic in Bogotá causes problems, but I try to remind myself that it does not compare with the chaos of Delhi, the dangers of crossing the streets of Kolkata, the impenetrable jams in Nairobi, and so on. Taking advantage of the gaping jaw of my cab driver, I end with my usual punch line: Everything is relative, and often we fail to appreciate what we have. We’re lucky to be living here.
The cab driver then nods, with a seeming feeling of achievement, and thanks me for reminding him to be grateful for his country.
I, on the other hand, leave with a sense of accomplishment, and a tinge of pain in my heart.
I have always been fiercely proud of the Philippines, and the choice to live away from it because of the kind of work I wanted to do has always been an unresolved dilemma for me. Often I feel like I have become a stranger to my own country, watching it from afar but never with the detachedness of a true outsider.
The past months have only magnified this feeling for me. For the past two years, I have been living in a country that many only know from the Netflix show Narcos and outdated impressions of war, kidnapping and drug trafficking. It is almost unknown to many back home how Colombia has repeatedly made history—good history—over the last years: the legalization of same-sex marriage, having the first city in the world to take mining to a community vote, the recognition of its Constitutional Court as one of the most activist courts in the world, the consistently strong economy propelling it to become an upper middle-income country even while still reeling from more than five decades of war (although high levels of inequality certainly persist), and now, the prospect of peace. At our office and everywhere in the country, the feeling of euphoria and anticipation is palpable. When the Colombian government and the FARC, the largest rebel group in the country, signed the peace accord in August this year after more than four years of negotiations, my friends were crying in joy and disbelief. The thought that their future children need not live through war anymore was just overwhelming.
In my corner of the office, I think about the peace agreement that the Philippine government signed with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in March 2014, and how it failed to be implemented due to the failure of Congress to pass the law agreed upon by the parties, thus still failing to end “one of the world’s longer, bloodier but least known internal conflicts”. We had been at war for almost half a century as well, and the Philippines has been negotiating with the rebels for even longer than the Colombians—19 years. Now, Colombians are about to go to the polls on October 2 to cast the most important vote in their history—yes or no to affirming the peace agreement. Filipinos, on the other hand, still await whether the supposed positive developments on the peace process by the new administration will finally end the conflict with the Moros once and for all (It should be noted that concrete encouraging changes with the communist group have been happening recently).
That is not even the topic I get concerned visits at my desk for these days. Today, Colombians (like millions from many other countries) watch about the Philippines in their evening news. Having become a household name around the world, our controversial president, Rodrigo Duterte, has supposedly been waging his own war against alleged drug traffickers in the Philippines through extrajudicial killings, leaving a death toll of 3,000 since taking office in June. Last week, my boss greeted me with the question of whether Duterte really called Obama a son of a bitch when questioned about how the Filipino leader intends to explain the killings to the US president. I said, “No. A more precise translation would be a ‘son of a whore’.”
The weirdness of being a Filipino living in Colombia today is that while I ache for the triumphs we could not yet celebrate back home, I feel like I see with greater clarity what Colombians may lose if they let uncertainty muddle their vote on the 2nd of October. Yes, the peace agreement is not perfect. Of course a successful “yes” vote at the plebiscite will not solve the country’s issues overnight. In fact, it will only be the start of a long, difficult process of healing.
However, Colombia’s road to peace can provide helpful lessons for other countries which have been struggling to end war. Despite the deep suspicion by Colombians of their own prospects for a lasting peace, the mere four years of the negotiations has undeniably already transformed society in a profound manner. A vibrant civil society has consolidated around the peace process. Moreover, the negotiations themselves have created innovations for the rest of the world to follow, such as the inclusion of victims during and not only after the talks, and the creation of a post-conflict criminal justice system that seeks to balance healing (by not prosecuting every person involved in crime) and exacting accountability (not granting total amnesties).
It is a start. For someone coming from a country who could not even enjoy that kind of hope at this point, a start is a big thing. No, it is an incredible thing. Colombians can focus on the traffic jams, the swerving cars, and an imperfect yet strong peace agreement. Or they can start informing themselves well, becoming grateful for the opportunity others would die to have, and giving peace a chance.
As a Filipino living in Colombia, I guess I would know.
To learn more about the upcoming plebiscite on the peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC, check out this link.
*Krizna Gomez is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).
Photo credit: Traffic jam in Bogotá. Photo by: Photo by: Hugo Londoño.