September 17, 2013
The Center for Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation (Centro de Memoria, Paz, y Reconciliación) lies at the intersection of Calle 26 and Carrera 19B, just next to the Park of Reconciliation. It is a new complex, built on the lands of the central cemetery of Bogota and administered by the Mayor’s Office. This is the place where President Juan Manuel Santos and Mayor Gustavo Petro planted a tree for peace last April.
I had visited the Center last year when it was under construction. The building of the center struck me as a great metaphor for peacebuilding, as both share many challenges and respond to similar questions. For example, how can painful memories of death and structural violence lay the foundation for a more just and inclusive society? How can lands marked by war become places immune to further violence? How can homes and dreams be rebuilt following the anguish of displacement? How can the disappeared be given new bodily forms? How can injustice sow the seeds of justice? How, ultimately, can death and memories of death be transformed into something that is life-giving?
A New Memory Center Exhibit
The new Memory Center implicitly responds to such questions. I returned there several weeks ago to see how construction was coming along. I met with the director, Camilo González Posso, who told me he had just received the official keys to the Center, which is now receiving visitors and boasts an impressive agenda of public programs.
Camilo walked me through the Center and together we visited the new exhibit, “From April 9th to the Havana Dialogues” (“Del 9 de abril a los diálogos de la Habana”). Within each of the rooms of this exhibit, the Zeitgeist of different eras of Colombia’s history of conflict and peace is recreated through music, art, and other cultural artifacts. In the first room, cordoned off with luxurious velvet burgundy drapes of a 1940s theatre, one can view a documentary about Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the populist Liberal leader whose assassination during his second presidential campaign in 1948 set off the Bogotazo and ushered in a decade of civil unrest known as La Violencia (1948 to 1958). Photographs, videos and animations tell the tales of the agrarian counter-reform, and the establishment of the National Front. A charming café, another icon of the 1950s, serves coffee and encourages conversation. In yet another room, one can read literary magazines of the time, or watch historic news reels of President Kennedy’s speeches during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maps and game boards show the rise of military dictatorships throughout the region in the 1960s and 70s. Another room is dedicated to the history of the Constitution of 1991, widely considered a peace agreement, that institutionalized and broadened guarantees for human rights. In the last room of the exhibit, one can learn about the development of the peace talks that began in Oslo in October 2012 and continue today in Havana. Multimedia allow the visitor to watch the announcements about the talks as they develop and to view interviews with the negotiators. The room is also set up with the Mayor’s official ballot box where citizens can provide inputs for the table in Havana.
Following the exhibit, I walked around the Center a bit more. I found it to be a place of tranquility and dignity. Within the Center, light and transparency dominate the shadows. I talked with some of the staff and learned how communities and victims participated in the design of the Center. (For more photos, see the slide show and photo essay in the previous Spanish blog.) Victims and survivors from every region of the country have shared and documented their stories for the Center’s archives and programming. These will become integrated into the historical narrative of the country. In public and private ceremonies, they have delivered samples of earth from their regions, that have been collected in small glass test tubes and incorporated as structural elements in the design of the building.
The Center makes us reflect on the history of violence in Colombia as well as the more hidden history of peace efforts. These larger histories are infused with the personal stories of individual victims, survivors, and communities. The inclusion of these memories, narratives, and earth samples recognizes and restores dignity to the victims, and are laying the foundations for reconciliation in Colombia. As the building of the Center has benefited from the participation of many of these voices, so too the construction of peace will be strengthened by their participation.