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How Unconventional Thinking Transformed a War-Torn Colombia

September 22, 2017

For more than half a century Colombia was one of the most violent and isolated places on Earth. Infamous for cartels, cocaine, and kidnapping and guerrilla warfare. But new ways of thinking have helped the country find peace and fight poverty, which many thought was impossible.

 

This was the start of a broadcast I was watching on TV on December 11, 2016 during a program called 60 minutes.

 

I was riveted to the screen. It was everything we had been learning in Spiritism brought to life and put into action in the real world. The principles of faith, love, and charity were especially exemplified in this story about the people of Columbia, as individuals, as a country, as a whole community coming together to bring peace and healing.

 

The people of Columbia had unwavering faith that their country could be healed. The enemies had faith that once they returned they would be accepted. The people of Columbia showed love for people who were considered to be their enemies through forgiveness and being non-judgmental as they welcomed back these guerrillas into their hearts and homes. And the enemies, in turn, dug deep down inside and remembered love they once knew and were courageous enough to allow that love to shine through them again and be humble as they returned to their families. And charity was shown by all towards each other in so many ways.

 

The following story took my breath away and left me speechless. I am so very happy to be able to share it with you tonight.

 

Introduction

How do you end a 52-year war that left 220,000 dead and millions displaced against a revolutionary army dedicated to overthrowing the government?

 

In 2006, the Colombian military approached one of the world’s top creative ad executives named Jose Miguel Sokoloff, with an idea for an advertising campaign. The military explained to the ad team the options they were facing in dealing with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the guerillas: either kill them, capture them, or convince them to quit. The ad team’s job became how to persuade the guerillas to lay down their arms and leave the jungle, without firing a single shot and at the same time how to convince the Colombian people to accept them back.

 

Humanizing the Rebels

His team’s first approach was to tell the stories of former guerillas, and they hired professional actors to reenact the scenes. It failed. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t resonating with the guerillas, and so they learned from that.”

 

But by listening to the guerillas’ stories, the ad team learned that the former militants had a shared experience. The common denominator was that a guerilla was as much of a prisoner of their organization as the people they held hostage. They learned that they needed to understand what these guerillas were going through. They learned that the best way to communicate with the guerillas was to take a non-judgmental approach. (This was Spiritism in real life action) The goal became  to appeal not only to the guerillas, but also to Colombians— to humanize the rebels they’d been fighting for half a century.

 

Another breakthrough moment came when they discovered that demobilization spiked around Christmas; guerrillas simply wanted to go home for the holidays.

Operation Christmas

So, in December of 2010 they launched “Operation Christmas”. At great risk, Black Hawk helicopters went into rebel territory. They dropped in on a supply path that the guerillas were known to use. They found nine, 75-foot trees near guerilla strongholds and decorated them with sparkling blue Christmas lights.

 

The soldiers were dressed in camouflage uniforms and face paint as they wrapped 2,000 lights around the branches and trunks. The trees were rigged with motion sensors that would turn the lights on when someone walked by. A banner was placed next to each lighted tree that said, "If Christmas can come to the jungle, you too can come home. Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible."

The ad team tried to make coming back home for Christmas an important thing. They knew that if they put up these Christmas trees with that sign up there, they would touch the hearts of the guerrillas, because their hearts were touched.

It worked incredibly well. 331 guerrillas—roughly five percent of the rebel force at the time— demobilized:  they came out of the jungle and gave up.  They were welcomed back to the towns and cities with open hearts and open arms. The guerrillas did not go to jail but were accepted by the Colombians back into their communities. The purpose of the campaign was always to demobilize as many guerrillas as possible.

 

Operation Rivers of Light

Then they continued onto another campaign. The Ad Team always asked themselves the question about how could they reach their target audience when they are hiding in 150,000 square miles of jungle? The rivers, they discovered, were the highways of the jungle and they were heavily used by the guerrilla forces. So, they launched their second Christmas campaign, “Operation Rivers of Light.” They asked people from all over the country to send messages and gifts to the guerillas which were placed inside floating plastic spheres that glowed in the dark and were placed onto the rivers.

 

TV and radio commercials encouraged people all over Colombia who had a friend or relative among the guerrilla forces to write messages. Government soldiers visited small towns on market days to collect the notes, and any small gifts people wanted to include, and placed them in these clear, illuminated balls. The commercials were to get people to participate and send messages, and to tell the guerrillas that if they see something in the river to pick it up -- it's a gift from their country.

 

The balls were equipped with LEDs that recharge on solar power and remained lighted for about two weeks. They were placed in nine different rivers, one in each of the areas that were still occupied by the guerrillas. There were 7,000 of these capsules floating on the rivers that would light up at night. When you saw that beautiful thing coming down the river, you couldn’t help but be touched by it. (It took my breath away it was so beautiful and meaningful)

Operation Bethlehem  

In 2011 there was another successful campaign called Operation Bethlehem that lit the way out of the jungle so guerilla members could find their way home. The ad team learned that guerrilla fighters were being shuffled around to prevent desertion which made it harder to find their way to towns to surrender. After the army identified five strategic areas, powerful beacons of light were placed in key town plazas and other safe places. The beacons projected an enormous beam of light into the sky, lighting a path to safe destinations. The beacons illuminated the sky every night as guiding lights to give guerrillas a destination to head toward when they escaped from their camps at night.

 

The agency brainstormed ways to illuminate the route through the jungle, and used all of them. Military helicopters dropped thousands of small lights along pathways traveled by the insurgents. By dropping them from the sky, the lights would get tangled too high in the trees to be removed by guerrilla leaders. Those lights illuminated the pathways out of the jungle. And since rivers are the jungle's highways, glow-in-the-dark billboards were installed along the rivers with the message "Guerrilla, follow the light." Glow-in-the-dark stickers were attached to vehicles believed to be carrying food to the insurgents. The stickers were placed on food packs and tree trunks. Fighters were often in touch with their families, especially around the holidays, so to spread the message, radio commercials ran in the form of rewritten Christmas carols that ended with the sentence, "This Christmas, follow the light that will guide you to your family and friends. Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible."

 

Mother’s Voice

The ad team and their military partners never let up. They rolled out dozens of campaigns each uniquely designed to show the guerillas the way out with beams of light, stickers on trees and voices of ex- guerilla leaders booming across the jungle but no voice was more powerful than the mothers of the guerrilla fighters. When the Ad team talked to former guerrillas, there was always one thing that worried them most, especially as the peace process was advancing. The guerrillas were worried that they might be rejected by their families. The ad team finally started to understand that Mothers were the ones who would always forgive the guerrillas, no matter what.

 

In 2013, the team found 27 mothers of guerrillas and asked them for childhood photos of their sons and daughters. During Christmas, the team posted the old photos that only the guerillas themselves would recognize, in areas of fighting, in the jungle, along with the message that “Before becoming a guerilla, you were my child. So, come home because I will always be waiting for you at Christmastime.”  Flyers with those photos were placed all over the jungle. When the soldiers would reach a town and flick on the television, they would likely see a commercial  featuring the mothers of soldiers looking through photographs and praying and singing, “I want you next to me, not just your photo next to me.” The team tapped into an aspect of this shared humanity with this campaign - Mother’s Voice. She’s waiting for you, she’s been waiting for you for at least 20 years in some cases.

According to the advertising agency, 218 mothers welcomed their children home because of that campaign. 218 people gave up their weapons and came home and stopped shooting.

Soccer Campaign

Football was a passion shared by the guerillas and non-guerillas, everyone, even guerrillas often stopped fighting during soccer matches. When Colombia hosted the Under-20 World Cup in 2011, the Ad Team kicked off another new campaign. Soldiers armed with thousands of soccer balls entered stadiums and players, celebrities, and fans all signed them. They loaded the soccer balls onto helicopters and threw them out all over the jungle, each with a sticker that said “Demobilize. Let’s play again.”

 

Summary

Over eight years, 18,000 guerillas put down their weapons and came home, in large part because of Sokoloff’s campaigns. The ads helped bring the guerrillas to the negotiating table in 2012. During the peace talks, Sokoloff said guerilla leaders asked the government to stop airing his commercials. Soon after they agreed to a ceasefire.

 

Colombians started feeling confident, started feeling that they could do whatever they wanted. They started feeling secure and safe, the fear started going away. And as they went outside and the world came there, it was infectious. The energy was incredible

 

Colombia’s spirit, once buried by war, has risen again. In the last 10 years, international investment is up over 100 percent. Tourism 240 percent. Not long ago, it was too dangerous to go out at night, now clubs in Bogotá are bursting with locals and foreigners.

This all makes me wonder just -

  • How many good spirits were involved in implementing these campaigns

  • How many good spirits were involved in whispering in the ears of the ad executives with inspirational ideas and messages of hope, and faith and courage to carry out these campaigns in guerrilla-dominated territories thought to be dangerous and filled with angry, rebellious and combative enemies.

  • How many good spirits were standing beside the guerrillas helping to guide each one of them out of the jungle, filling them with hope and faith and courage that they would safely find their way towards that beacon of light, gently guiding them on the pathways that would lead them back into the arms of their loved ones, friends, and neighbors without fear of being rejected or scorned or cast aside.

  • How many spirits were there guiding this whole country filling them –

       -- With Forgiveness instead of judgement

       -- With hope instead of fear

       -- With love instead of hate

 

Aren’t these the very foundation and guiding principles of Spiritism that we are all learning and trying to implement into our daily lives?

 

Aren’t  these the basic lessons and teachings that Jesus gave us so long ago?

 

I am in awe to see the basic tenets of “love your neighbor as Yourself” being openly displayed and practiced for all of us to see, being implemented by so many people of a country.

 

What an inspiration for all of us to follow. I wonder how many ways each of us may be able to find to integrate these practices into our everyday lives, as individuals, as a community, as a country, as a planet.

 

This story gives me great hope – We can do it too!

A time dedicated to our Spiritual and Physical balance and harmony. Everyone is welcome. No previous experience with any spiritual teaching is needed. This meeting is recommended as a “Spiritual Support” to help all of us face our challenges and overcome them with balance and wisdom.

 

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Jesus (John 8:35-12)
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