May 25 2016.

The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punishèd:
For never was a story of more woe…

Shakespeare’s epilogue to his timeless drama Romeo and Juliet seems all too appropriate to Colombia in 2016. The country is awaiting with baited breath the signing of a definitive bilateral ceasefire, in the coming days, to its “ancient grudge …where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”

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The ceasefire will be the result of over eighteen months of talks in the Sub-Commission on Ending the Armed Conflict, a technical group that has been working in Havana, including army generals and FARC commanders, to agree the parameters for FARC’s demobilisation. It will also be the last agenda agreement to come out of the peace negotiations before the signing of the final accords, expected later this year. The parties have already reached agreement on the rest of the six-point agenda: agrarian reform, political participation, drug-trafficking, victims and transitional justice, and most recently, judicial measures in order to implement the agreements and make them legally binding, protecting them from political interests that could at some future moment seek to undermine them.

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Santos and Timochenko as Montague and Capulet, with Raul Castro as the Prince

This will be a hugely significant moment. It means the end of the longest-running armed confrontation in the Western hemisphere, and a halt to the endless toll of victims – whose number, according to government statistics, has now passed 8 million, the largest humanitarian crisis in the world after Syria.

Yet many Colombians are not satisfied. Sixty years of armed conflict has produced massive polarisation, and it will not be easy to de-radicalise people’s perceptions, but it is a necessary task.

One element for which many people clamour is the recognition of responsibility for mass human rights violations. This is a standard request in transitional societies, and undoubtedly important. But there is a tendency in Colombia for the left to call for the State to recognise responsibility, and for the right to call for the FARC to recognise responsibility. Both sides have made emblematic public pronouncements recognising their responsibility and apologising for their role in specific cases, such as the FARC’s apology to the victims of the bombing in Bojayá Bella Vista, and President Santos’ apology to the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. However, as the signing of the definitive bilateral ceasefire approaches, it would arguably be more effective for there to be a joint statement of joint responsibility. A conflict does not arise from the actions of only one party.

Two houses

In this year of 2016 in which the world marks 400 years since William Shakespeare’s death, I believe the Bard has something to offer. When I first arrived in Colombia in 2010 and began to learn about the history of the armed conflict, I immediately saw it as Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s portrayal of love in this play is not, in my opinion, terribly subtle. But his portrayal of war and reconciliation, I have always admired. The prologue to the tragedy is:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.

The two “houses”, Montague and Capulet, “both alike in dignity”, are engaged in an entrenched war, an “ancient grudge”, countryman against countryman, spilling “civil blood” and affecting the “star-cross’d lovers”, destined to tragedy because they fall in love with the wrong side. But also, curiously, the tragic death of civilians who are not involved in the war is, eventually and too late, the motive of the parties to end the conflict – with their death they “bury their parents’ strife” – just as, in Colombia, the most pressing agenda is to prevent the shedding of the blood of yet more victims.

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The ending of the play could be an inspiration for the parties in Havana. All are gathered around the dead bodies of Romeo and Juliet, including the heads of the two houses, Montague and Capulet. First the Prince of Verona speaks. He says:

Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punishèd.

The apparently neutral onlooker, the Prince, recognises his own responsibility in “winking at your discords”, that is, in omitting to do anything about the bloody feud. Similarly, many in Colombian society have done just that – closed their eyes and looked the other way.

Then comes the moment of recognition and repentance from the heads of the two houses, where each recognises the other’s loss. Montague vows to build a state of Capulet’s daughter Juliet, as a symbol of her virtue and the tragedy of her death. This will surely be echoed in Colombia by memory projects and symbolic reparations programmes, as it has been in Chile, Argentina and El Salvador.

A glooming peace

Capulet recognises that the “sacrifices” are of “our enmity” – a lesson which could be so valuable to the parties in Havana. In order for Colombians everywhere to understand the dimension of the signing of a final ceasefire, the parties should ask for forgiveness to all Colombian people. Because of their war, all have suffered. All have lost. “All are punished”. As a member of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó says in my new documentary Chocolate of Peace, “in war, there is never a winner. You only ever lose.”

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punishèd:

“A glooming peace” sums up what may happen in Colombia. The signing of the final ceasefire should have elements of a solemn ritual, as the country begins to reflect on the past. There will be “more talk of these sad things”; for years to come, Colombia will have to work out its historical memory. Shakespeare didn’t need the Twentieth-Century invention of Transitional Justice to know that in moments of ceasing fire, some concessions have to be made, in order to balance justice with the greater aim of peace, and put an end to more violence – ‘Some shall be pardon’d, and some punishèd’.

But the signing of the final ceasefire should also bring celebration. In a record time, less than four years, we will see one of the world’s most intractable conflicts drawn to an end. An imperfect end, because all endings are imperfect. The ritual effect of a mutual recognition could go a good way towards sending the kind of message to Colombian society that would help facilitate acceptance, “quench the fire of … pernicious rage”, and de-escalate the polarisation that has fuelled the cycles of violence. The negotiating parties in Havana could do worse than look at Shakespeare’s model of retribution and reconciliation as an inspiration for the rituals needed to pave the way for peace.

Gwen Burnyeat is a British anthropologist and writer based in Colombia and the UK. She has been lecturer in Political Anthropology in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, where she also did a Masters degree in Anthropology as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar and wrote her thesis on the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Before that she studied Literature at the Universities of Leeds and Cambridge. She has worked in Colombia for six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International. As well as academic articles she also writes short fiction, and has recently produced the documentary ‘Chocolate of Peace‘. As of September 2016, she will be a Wolfson scholar reading for a PhD in Anthropology at UCL researching the Colombian peace process.
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Gwen Burnyeat is a Wolfson scholar reading for a PhD in Anthropology at UCL researching the Colombian peace process. She was previously lecturer in Political Anthropology in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, where she also did a Masters in Anthropology as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar. This was the basis for her forthcoming book 'Chocolate, Politics and Peace-building: an Ethnography of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia' (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) and the documentary 'Chocolate of Peace'. Before that she studied Literature at the Universities of Leeds and Cambridge. She has worked in Colombia for over six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International.