By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Featuring a former child soldier and a policeman held hostage for nine years by rebels, Colombia's version of the hit TV contest "Dancing with the Stars" hopes to show millions of viewers that former battlefield enemies can live side by side.
John Pinchao, a policeman held captive in a jungle camp, often in chains, by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) until he escaped in 2007, is now sharing the dance floor with ex-FARC child soldier Ana Pacheco, who joined the rebel group aged 14.
The prime-time show comes at a time when the three-year-old peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC are approaching the goal the two sides have set of signing an accord by March 23.
If successful, this would end half a century of war that has killed 220,000 people and displaced 6.5 million, and would lead to some 7,000 FARC fighters handing in their weapons.
While the TV contestants, who also include an Olympic diving champion and local celebrities, hope to show off their dance moves to samba and salsa beats, the show puts the spotlight on key challenges facing Colombia in its quest for lasting peace.
Over the decades, the use of terror tactics by the guerrillas, such as bombing civilian targets, seizing towns and kidnapping civilians, means most Colombians hate the FARC.
As the March deadline for signing a peace deal looms, Colombians are considering to what extent they are ready to forgive FARC and accept former combatants back into society.
COMBATANTS ARE PEOPLE TOO
For Pacheco, who left the rebel ranks when she was 16, the TV show is an opportunity to show the human face of former fighters.
"I hope to show viewers that people like me, given a second chance, can achieve things and that we have dreams," Pacheco, now 26, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
"I've been attacked on social media and have received unpleasant comments but I'm moving on. I want to show that reconciliation is possible in Colombia. John and I get on well, and if we can do it, so can others," said Pacheco, a model.
The producers of the TV show, the second most popular program in Colombia, which launched this week, hope the unexpected line-up can foster empathy among Colombians with people who suffered during the years of conflict.
"We want the show to awaken solidarity. We weren't just looking for great dancers and celebrities, what inspired us was to show the reality that faces Colombia, it's about living together, and what's ahead for us as peace talks enter their final phase," said Fox Colombia executive producer Oscar Guarin.
"Some people on social media have questioned our choices, saying Ana and John aren't real celebrities, but overall the reaction has been more positive than negative," he said. Fox Colombia is producing the show for Colombian private TV channel RCN.
Colombians may cheer on an ex-child soldier in a dancing contest, but local polls show many Colombians distrust the FARC and do not want to see former guerrillas hold political posts.
Most demobilized fighters struggle to find jobs and gain acceptance in society.
"Much of society sees demobilized combatants as monsters, as criminals who deserve harsh punishments. They are very strongly affected by stigma," said Joshua Mitrotti, head of the government's reintegration agency.
"We have to use all kinds of tools to show Colombians that demobilized combatants are human just like everyone else. Entertainment is one way of doing this."
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)