The chants of “We want peace” echoed for blocks, drowning out the din of rush hour. A smear of people carrying lit torches and banners ambled down Carrera 7, one of the city’s main thoroughfares.
People clung to trees and others climbed atop anything that supported their weight, waving white flags and placards. Several Brink’s armored vehicles sat idle, trapped amid an overflowing crowd that inched closer to what has become the epicenter of Colombia’s push for peace: The Plaza de Bolívar.
This extraordinary public outpouring on October 6, estimated in the tens of thousands, was just the first of several massive peace protests that have filled to capacity the 149,650-square-foot plaza since voters narrowly rejected a proposed accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group.
On Tuesday, Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo with the help of volunteers and passersby stitched together a white cloth that contained the names of 1,900 victims of the war, a striking visual representation of the human cost the country has endured.
Known for poignant, large-scale works, in 2007 Salcedo cracked open the floor of the Tate Modern gallery in London with her 167m-long ‘Shibboleth’ installation.
“The names are poorly written, almost erased, because we are already forgetting these violent deaths,” Salcedo said in a statement.
The 22,965 feet of fabric only contained seven percent of the victims of the war. She would need 328,071 feet of fabric, or enough to cover the Empire State Building from top to bottom 262 times, to include the names of every victim.
On Wednesday, a “flower march” filled the plaza again, drawing members of the indigenous community, farmers, social leaders, students and victims from many different parts of Colombia. The protestors carried white roses to the Plaza de Bolívar where they were given to victims of the conflict.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Colombia.
In the wake of the peace accord’s rejection, President Juan Manuel Santos has scrambled to salvage a deal to end a conflict has killed 220,000 people and displaced more than five million since the 1960s. He met with ex-president Alvaro Uribe for the first time in five and listened to proposed changes to the peace accord.
After meeting on Thursday with organizers of the marches, Santos extended a bilateral cease-fire with FARC until December 31 to give more time to hash out possible adjustments to the peace deal.
But a lurking fear exists that a protracted peace negotiation could lead to a flare-up in the war. The prospect of a return to war has galvanized tens of thousands of Colombians from all walks of life. And their message is clear: “We want peace. Not even one step back.”
People around the world have long converged on city squares like the Plaza de Bolívar to rally, voice discontent and express their vision for their countries.
In 1977, a group of mothers in Buenos Aires set out to find their children who disappeared during the country’s military dictatorship, began gathering at Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo. They held their 2,000th weekly rally in August.
Tiananmen Square in Beijing was the scene of student-led demonstrations in 1989. The Chinese government cracked down on the protests, killing between 200 and 1,000 protestors.
In Mexico City, thousands of people in 2014 converged on the “zócalo,” the city’s emblematic public square, to protest the disappearance of 43 college students in the village of Iguala in southwestern Mexico.
For its part, the Plaza de Bolívar, has hosted numerous protests and demonstrations over the years, but the recent series of marches have turned it into a sea of people like few times in history.
Just over 46,200 people fit in the Plaza de Bolívar, according to a study done by Universidad de los Andes in 2014. An additional 9,400 people fit on the cathedral steps and surrounding streets.
As the prospect of Colombia ending its bilateral ceasefire with FARC on December 31 approaches, more massive peace marches, and perhaps anti-peace marches, will likely continue filling the plaza.
Marches have also been held in Cali, Medellin, Manizales, Córdoba, Santa Marta, Bucaramanga and other cities.