Colombia's war victims ask country to support peace talks

Victims of the Colombian armed conflict attend a conference for peace talks between Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government in Havana August 16, 2014. The banner reads, "Dialogue of peace". REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

By Daniel Trotta HAVANA (Reuters) - Victims of Colombia's 50-year-old war pleaded with peace negotiators to reach a deal and said they were willing to forgive heinous acts of cruelty, urging Colombians to unite behind the effort to end the bloodshed. Twelve victims from all sides in the Colombian conflict addressed peace negotiators in Havana on Saturday, marking the first time victims have been given an official voice in peace talks to end a war that has killed 200,000 people. In all 60 victims will speak to representatives of the Colombian government and leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who have been working toward a comprehensive peace plan with Cuba as host for nearly two years. "If we who have been directly affected by violence can take this step and have this encounter, why can't the rest of the country? Why can't the rest of the country forgive," said Constanza Turbay, whose entire family of politicians was killed by the FARC. One of her brothers died while kidnapped in 1997. Another brother, president of a peace commission, was assassinated along with their mother and five other people in 2000. She and 11 other victims of the FARC, the army and right-wing paramilitary groups spoke to reporters on Saturday after addressing peace negotiators behind closed doors. President Juan Manuel Santos won re-election in June after staking his political future on peace talks, while challenger Oscar Zuluaga criticized the talks and threatening to end them. Many Colombians flatly oppose negotiations, preferring to keep military pressure on the FARC. "Those who aren't betting on peace have never lived through what we have lived through," said Angela Maria Giraldo, whose brother was kidnapped and killed by the FARC. Others present had relatives killed in army or paramilitary massacres, or were displaced by the fighting. Their appearance added a personal human drama to a process that has been largely marked by political pronouncements from the rebels and government representatives. "I have worked with victims for 30 years on every continent and in many armed conflicts and this has been one of the most moving experiences for me," said Fabrizio Hochschild, a U.N. representative deeply involved in the Colombian talks. A commission led by the United Nations, the Roman Catholic Church and Colombia's National University chose the victims, some of whom were sharply critical of the FARC or the army. Their role as official participants in the talks is internationally unprecedented, Hochschild said. Each expressed distinct views on the war but "all of them want a country in which their children and grandchildren will not suffer as they did," Hochschild said. Among them was Jaime Peña, the father of one of 32 young people who disappeared and were assassinated by a paramilitary group in 1998. "Today at the end of the workshop there was a unanimous call by all the victims to tell the negotiators they cannot get up from the table until this process has ended," Peña said. (Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by Michael Perry)