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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saying Farewell to Arms

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - The thin, pale young man, his light-blue eyes glinting behind steel-rimmed glasses, wore a dark-blue suit, a finely striped shirt and a flowered tie. Fingering the tie, he said the decision to wear it "and long trousers" symbolized a transformation, "a mark of respect for the society".


More important, he said, was the decision to give up his gun. "It was a heroic act, heroic", he repeated, "like a woman going out on the street naked". He is Antonio Navarro Wolff, leader of the group that stormed into the Supreme Court in Bogota, killing 11 justices, in 1985, and responsible for many other acts of violence.


He was speaking in the grand ballroom of this city's main hotel, to a decorous audience of several hundred, mainly Salvadorans, including high officials and military leaders, and visitors from 18 countries.


Earlier, Joaquim Villalobos, a slight, handsomely elegant 41-year-old who had led Salvador's leftist guerrillas in the murderous 12-year civil war, told the same audience, "We've had excesses of power. Now we need excesses of tolerance".


Now, both represent political parties, in from the jungle, rid of the "old revolutionary dogma", as Villalobos said, still "committed to change", as Navarro Wolff said, but dedicated to democracy and a peaceful society. The occasion was a two-day conference on "Reconciliation in Times of Transition", an exchange of experiences on how to create or restore civil society after years of open conflict or dictatorship.


There are big differences from country to country, but there are also common themes - acknowledging responsibility for past crimes, whether to punish or to pardon, returning fighters to everyday life, reviving ruined economies, turning to the future as a common task.


Speakers from Poland and Czechoslovakia, grappling with the unexpected burdens of converting dissidents into governors who still have to work with their ex-jailers, could not understand the obsession of the Latin Americans with developing democratic relations between the military and civilians. The Latins found it hard to digest the idea that totalitarian regimes could have existed with full civilian control of the armed forces.


All were wary in approaching the conversion of mortal enemies into political rivals, but all seemed to endorse the necessity. The former Czech dissident Jan Urban quoted his country's ancient philosopher Comenius: "Even children can kill. You need a real man to build peace".


It is a new world and an old world. The problems are specific, concrete and vast. But the attitudes toward dealing with them are suddenly being seen as a matter of choice, social choice and individual choice. and the cost of the wrong choice has become staggeringly evident.


One after another, the Salvadorans cited the price of their vicious war - in a population of 5 million, 80, 000 were killed, of whom 14, 000 were guerrillas, 10, 000 soldiers, the rest civilians; many were maimed and 1 million driven to exile. Many more have been killed in less than a year in a Bosnian population half the size, but the Bosnians are not ready to think of victory as a suicidal illusion.


There was not much talk of how that point can be reached, although it seemed so obvious to the people who have arrived there. Navarro Wolff noted with some surprise that joining the political process had been the easiest part for Colombian guerrillas. He ran for president and has a fair chance of being elected next time.


But joining the productive economy is much harder. "We know about life and death", he said, "not about making a living. The motive that drove people to the guerrilla movement was the desire for change. They still want to help the society change, but to develop a culture of peace in place of the old culture of violence". Demobilized, the guerrillas took their arms to be melted down in a foundry and plan to use the six or seven tons of steel to build a peace monument.


The past must be admitted, the truth told. "Otherwise, the past will go underground and reappear", Urban said. But punishment is something else. Chile's Truth Commission was hailed as an example, revealing all, but prosecuting only cases identified as crimes against humanity.


"Responsibility for the future is what matters". a Salvadorean leader said. "It's up to us".


Flora Lewis