In Sincelejo, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, the difference between the densely forested farmland, and the shorn, bald mounds of cropland or cattle ranches is stark. On the ranches, the grass has been mowed and chewed close to the ground, its pale green reflecting the sunlight. At midday, the landscape is blindingly bright, the dryness is visceral. Standing at the edge of the mirador (viewpoint), I can feel how scorched the earth is. 

I’m in Colombia for a six-month field placement, part of my Master’s in International Peace Studies programme at the University of Notre Dame. After five months in Bogotá, the capital city, which is known for its cold and rainy weather, and rigid and uppity people, I’m now in Sincelejo, which is warm and bright, and where people move to bullerengue and vallenato rhythms. But Sincelejo and Montes de María, the adjacent region, are also infamous for the intense violence between guerillas and paramilitaries that inflicted suffering on the campesinos, or peasants.

Colombia has lived through centuries of conflict. The most recent period, known as La Violencia, was allegedly sparked by the assassination of Liberal Party presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9th 1948. This instigated clashes between left-wing guerilla groups, the Colombian government, right-wing paramilitaries, landowners, and other criminal armed groups. Unequal land distribution and contestation over territory for cattle ranching, mining, and the trafficking of illicit goods have been the main drivers of conflict. 

Montes de María saw the highest concentration of violence during La Violencia. Between 1996-2007, the region was fought over by eight armed actors, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which signed the 2016 Peace Agreement with the Colombian government, as well as other guerilla and paramilitary groups. 

Campesinos and other rural dwellers have been the ones most affected by the violence. The National Center for Historical Memory has documented over 60 massacres, though the inhabitants of Montes de María have recorded 117 as part of the Itinerant Museum’s research. The violence displaced 200,000 people, close to 60 percent of the region’s population. The armed conflict also led to assassinations, forced disappearances, and sexual violence, leaving the region with deep social, emotional, cultural, and psychological scars. 

My Master’s research has focused on how embodiment and trauma healing are used as methods of peacebuilding and reconciliation in the aftermath of Colombia’s armed conflict. I spent my six-month field placement working with an organisation in Bogotá that is putting these methods into practice, and volunteering with a grassroots peacebuilding organisation in Sincelejo called Sembrandopaz, which means “sowing the seeds of peace”. 

Making our way down the soft-rock rural lane, and facing off with a recycling truck piled with buckets, and even a broken chair strapped to its roof.

The finca I am living on is 40 minutes north of the city centre, up a bumpy soft stone path that is only navigable by four-wheel drives and motorcycles. Along the way, we pass other small houses and a few ganaderías, or cattle ranches and, at some point, cross from Sincelejo into Montes de María. 

Once we’re in the mountains, the road evens out, and the land turns greener, opening up onto vistas of the region’s famed rolling green hills. We drive through the finca’s gates, and pass the guest cabana. Then I continue down the lane to Manuela and Narciso’s house, which Narciso has recently repainted with a fresh coat of bright fuchsia. 

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