CALI, Colombia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - During seven years of night guard duty as a rebel child soldier in Colombia’s jungle hideouts, Jhon Jairo Obando was kept awake knowing that if he did not shoot first his enemy would.
“It was me or the paramilitaries. It was a question of survival,” said Obando, now 27, who joined Colombia’s leftist guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), at the age of 10 to escape abuse at home.
In another part of Colombia, right-wing paramilitary fighter Hector Fabio Perea felt the same fear and hatred during his five years in the now defunct United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), an umbrella group of fighters set up to defeat the FARC.
“The FARC would come down from the mountains and attack towns. We had to eliminate them,” said Perea, who joined the AUC for revenge after rebels killed his brother and six cousins.
Once sworn enemies on the battlefield, both are now among a group of former fighters who work alongside each other as business partners and owners of a timber company set up in 2010.
The World of Timber is a rare example of reconciliation between warring factions in Colombia’s five-decade war that has killed 200,000 people and displaced six million, with peace talks renewing this month to try to end the war.
The ex-fighters hope putting their pasts behind them will help end the cycle of revenge in their lives at least, that has fueled Latin America’s longest-running insurgency.
Perea said he had “turned the page” after first reconciling himself to his past actions so that he could sleep at night.
“Forgiveness is accepting the past and seeing people not through what side of the war they were on but as civilians with rights,” he said over the din of wood cutting machines at the factory outside Cali, Colombia’s third city, a seven-hour drive west of the capital Bogota.
“All of us working together is an example that reconciliation is possible. Colombia needs to know it’s possible if people are given an opportunity.”
For two years, the government and top rebel commanders have been trying to hammer out a peace deal in Cuba to end the war. If they succeed, 8,000 FARC rebels may hand in their weapons.
Along the way there has been much soul searching among Colombians over forgiving the FARC and other armed groups with government figures saying seven million Colombians, from a population of 46 million, suffered in some way in the conflict.
Over the past decade, 49,000 fighters from illegal armed groups have laid down their weapons with nearly 29,000 enrolling in government reintegration programs to give them skills and jobs to prevent a return to the conflict or joining drug gangs.
The program offers a monthly allowance of $210 for up to six-and-a-half years provided ex-combatants attend school or university, plus counseling and vocational training.
Still, about a quarter of Colombia’s demobilized fighters take up arms again, often tempted by offers to earn more money as drug traffickers.
They also suffer discrimination and few companies are willing to hire them.
“Many Colombians don’t want to give us a second chance,” said Jhon Jairo Burbano, 42, a former FARC fighter, walking past piles of wood chips on the factory floor.
Helping the ex-fighters work together at the World of Timber was an arduous process, says the Carvajal Foundation, the Colombian nonprofit organization that created the company with investment from local businesses and the government.
About 200 ex-fighters were put forward to join the scheme with 19 chosen, or which 10 have stuck it out.
They needed therapy with psychologists and social workers to help build trust, allay fears and heal the wounds of war, and training to learn the basics needed to run a business.
“They had been taught that the enemy must be destroyed,” said Oscar Donney, business development coordinator at the Carvajal Foundation.
“They came from a different world where they learnt to give or follow orders, and not to create or build together. We knew there would be animosity and fear at the beginning.”
Despite hours of therapy, the ex-fighters’ instincts were initially to split into groups along battle lines.
“When we first met we didn’t have a big group hug,” said Burbano. “We were wary of each other and kept our distance. We separated into left and right, the ex-paramilitaries on one side, the ex-guerrillas on the other.”
Learning how to resolve differences through dialogue rather than violence and weapons was also a struggle.
“We’ve learnt how to listen, respect and empathize ... We couldn’t remain in different corners because our business has to move in the same direction,” Burbano said.
In the end, nine of the former combatants dropped out as some struggled to learn the business skills needed while others could not accept taking orders from others.
Burbano said ex-fighters had to address their past to move on.
Hundreds of public and private acts of reconciliation have taken place, with former paramilitary warlords sending video messages from prison asking victims for forgiveness, and war victims meeting with FARC chiefs at the Cuba peace talks.
“It takes courage to forgive, especially while we continue to kill one other. But Colombians have to if we want lasting peace,” said Burbano.
Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Alex Whiting