FARC victims' children say 'yes' to peace in Colombia

Bogota (AFP) - Sebastian Echeverry was four years old when the FARC rebels kidnapped his father in western Colombia. Five years later, they killed him.

Today, the 19-year-old student says he has forgiven the people who took his dad. And, together with other children of victims, he is campaigning to vote "yes" in a referendum on a peace deal that would end more than half a century of conflict with the Marxist guerrillas.

Echeverry's father was a lawmaker in the Cauca Valley, on Colombia's Pacific coast.

After the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) abducted him in 2002, Echeverry spent five anguishing years hoping he would return home safely.

"I had a very different kind of childhood. It was strange. I don't remember many colors, games or friends," said Echeverry.

"What I remember are never-ending protest marches. I remember people recording my words saying things to my dad, because that's how we communicated with each other, with messages to prove we were still alive."

Then one day came the news: his father had been killed along with 10 other lawmakers from the region.

Echeverry used to vow he would get revenge. But over the years, he says, he has learned to turn his pain to forgiveness.

Now he is calling on Colombians to vote in favor of peace in an October 2 referendum that will decide the fate of the accord reached after nearly four years of negotiations between the government and the FARC.

"My 'yes' vote is basically because I discovered that when you forgive you stop looking toward the past. You turn the page. You realize that you're a better person and you're capable of building something," he told AFP.

The FARC themselves recently described the killing of the 11 lawmakers in 2007 as "shameful" and "absurd."

- 'No more victims' -

Sebastian and other relatives of FARC victims took part this week in the launch of "Yes, of course," a campaign in support of the peace deal, which aims to end a war that has claimed more than 260,000 lives and left 45,000 people missing.

Waving white flags stamped with the word "Yes," many spoke of forgiveness.

Harry Gonzalez, whose father was killed by the FARC in 1996, acknowledged that is not always easy.

"Forgiveness is something very personal and intimate for each victim. That's why we have to find other motivations," said Gonzalez, who today co-chairs the peace committee in the lower house of Congress.

"In my case, I found a great motivation, which is trying to make sure there are no more victims of the conflict in Colombia."

Gonzalez, 38, is the son of Jesus Angel Gonzalez, who was governor of Caqueta department. The FARC assassinated him during a campaign against Liberal party politicians across the region in the 1990s.

Eduardo Bejarano, 44, also lost his father to the conflict.

The leftist academic was shot in the head in 1999. Ironically, he had been a peace adviser to former president Cesar Gaviria (1990-1994).

The FARC have been accused of the crime, but it has never officially been solved.

Bejarano, like Echeverry and Gonzalez, is today campaigning for "Yes, of course," for complex reasons.

"Forgiveness isn't something you do for the FARC. I don't practice forgiveness so they can be guilt-free. I forgive because I need to, for my spiritual growth," he said.

"The time will come when the FARC will tell the country the truth about a lot of deaths."

The peace accord would create special courts to judge crimes committed during the conflict and order reparations to victims. Those who confess their crimes will receive lighter sentences.

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