Peace in Colombia: The Tale of Bojayá

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  • In May 2002, shortly after the massacre, the town of Bojayá was abandoned. The population relocated a few miles south, to a new town called Bellavista. The dense jungle covers some of the old buildings.

  • In May 2002, shortly after the massacre, the town of Bojayá was abandoned. The population relocated a few miles south to a new town called Bellavista. The church is the only building that has been rebuilt and maintained. The local population sought refuge here during the fighting between the FARC and the paramilitaries.

  • The church is often visited by family and friends of the victims.

  • The dense jungle covers the abandoned town. This soccer-basketball field was at the core of old Bojayá’s social life.

  • Afro-Colombians represent nearly 15 percent of the country’s population. In the Chocó Department, however, they are more than 80 percent of the population. Here, the Afro-Colombian community gathers in assembly for a UN-led transitional justice event held in June 2015.

  • The community went through the conflict’s regional history since 1985, marking one by one the events that affected them most

  • Within the Afro-Colombian community, women have taken more prominent roles. Still, they face the challenges of being women in a male-dominated world on a daily basis. Here, a Chocoan woman lists down and moderates the discussion on the victimizing events.

  • An Embera woman and her two children rest inside the church during the UN-led event in June 2015. Embera people live in territories that are several hours away from Bojayá and Bellavista. They have inhabited the region for centuries. Their culture and way of life has been severely affected by the conflict.

  • Local volunteers clean the Panga boats after a long day of work.

  • In Bellavista houses are often painted with the local Chocó style.

  • The cemetery of Bellavista is made with local materials.

  • Pangas, the long boats used in this region, transport goods and passengers along the Atrato River.

  • At sunset, kids take a bath and women clean clothes in the river. The Atrato is highly contaminated due to illegal mining activity. On the back, a boat heads toward the old Bojayá.

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May 2002. After days of fighting between the paramilitaries and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the inhabitants of Bojayá, in the department of Chocó, sought refuge in the town’s church. The Colombian army was fully aware of what was happening, but nowhere to be seen. In the crossfire, a cylinder bomb fired by the FARC hit the church, killing seventy-nine civilians, including forty-five children, and leaving dozens injured.[1]

This massacre, like many others during Colombia’s internal armed conflict, could have been avoided. The regional ombudsman and the United Nations had both asked the army to intervene in Bojayá, but the Colombian armed forces only arrived at the town four days after the massacre occurred. As in countless other occasions, factors such as its collusion with the paramilitaries help explain why the army failed to fulfill its duty of protecting civilians. Following this tragedy, Bojayá was abandoned and the entire population relocated a few miles south to a newly founded town, Bellavista.

December 2015. More than thirteen years later, in a symbolic gesture, the FARC returned to the abandoned town to ask forgiveness for the massacre, and the loss and pain it caused.[2] This was one of a series of events that have been taking place in the context of the peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government. The parties have been engaged in peace negotiations in Havana, Cuba since 2012. In what seems to be the most promising peace process to date, they have steadily reached agreement on many of the points that were set four years ago.

Many challenges lie ahead. For more than five decades, Colombia has been immersed in an internal armed conflict that caused at least 220,000 deaths since 1958.[3]  Even if a peace agreement is reached in the near future, criminality and poverty are likely to remain high. With a Gini coefficient well above the UNDP’s 0.40 “alarm boundary,” regional disparities still take their toll on a large segment of the population. The presence of the state remains marginal in several regions, with the provision of public services lacking to non-existent in some areas. The Chocó is emblematic in this respect and reflects the huge contrasts within the country. One of the regions most affected by armed conflict, it is Colombia’s poorest department and is mainly populated by two minorities: the Afro-Colombians and the Embera indigenous community. In parts of rural Chocó, the local population still has to cope with the presence of paramilitaries, criminal gangs, and guerrillas (including the ELN).

It has been more than fifty years since the internal armed conflict began. Sparking hope and engaging Colombians in the peace process remain the biggest challenges confronting the parties. At the same time, the government certainly needs to be cautious in managing expectations. But if the events in Bojayá tells us something, it is that this peace process is different from the previous failed attempts. With the victims and citizens participating and if there is political will, Bojayá’s forgiveness ceremony may be a harbinger of a more peaceful Colombia.

About the Author

Sofía del Carril holds a law degree from Universidad di Tella in Argentina. Míriam Juan-Torres earned her LLB from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain. Sofía and Míriam are both second-year MA students at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and spent the summer of 2015 working for the United Nations in Colombia.

[1] Gonzalo Sánchez G., “Bojayá: La Guerra Sin Límites,” Centro de Memoria Histórica (2010), last accessed March 15th, 2016,

[2] Sally Palomino, “Las FARC piden perdón en Bojayá por su peor masacre,” El País, December 9, 2015.

[3] Gobierno de Colombia, Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, ¡Basta ya! Colombia: memorias y dignidad, Informe general Grupo de Memoria Histórica (Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional, 2013).



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