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The Power of Compassion

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

This is the first blog that I've ever written where I felt it justified to share the exact words from a book. This book, which for me is life-changing, is called HumanKind written by historian and one of Europe's most prominent young thinkers, Rutger Bregman (@rcbregman, The true account that I am about to share with you, blew me away. It made me want to laugh, cry, jump for joy and pound my chest - all at the same time. I look forward to hearing your thoughts/reactions/feelings to this incredible Christmas gesture:

"Colombia, 2006 - Carlos Rodriguez and Juan Pablo García work at MullenLowe, a leading global ad agency. Most days, they come up with commercials for cat food or try to sell consumers a new brand of shampoo. But on this particular day the agency gets an unusual request.

The client is Colombia’s defence minister. And the job? He wants the ad agency's help in the fight against FARC, the oldest guerrilla army in Latin America. The government wants to bombard the guerrillas with guerrilla marketing. By this time, the war in Colombia has been going on for more than fifty years and has claimed some 220,000 lives. Colombia's army, right-wing paramilitary groups, and guerrilla movements like FARC are all guilty of the most heinous war crimes. A whole generation has grown up never knowing peace. And the army realises by now that the war will never be won by brute force.

The admen at MullenLowe accept the minister's request and approach it as they would any job, by interviewing their target audience. Over the course of a year, the agency talks to nearly a hundred former FARC fighters. The researchers try to pin down what drove them into the jungle, and what keeps them there. Their conclusion after every interview is the same: these are ordinary men and women.

The rebels have the same needs, dreams and desires we all have. "Once you really understand that they're not guerrillas but humans," Carlos later explained, "the communication totally changes." Among other things, the team discovers that the number of demobilisations peaks around the same time each year: Christmas. It seems that, like anybody else, guerrillas prefer to go home for the holidays. So the idea Carlos and Juan pitch to their boss is simple: "Maybe we're crazy, but what would you say if we put a Christmas tree in the middle of the jungle?"

Operation Christmas starts in December 2010. Under cover of night, two special forces teams in Black Hawk helicopters fly deep into enemy territory. There, they drop two thousand Christmas lights on seventy-five-foot trees in nine strategic spots. To these "Christmas trees" they attach motion detectors and banners that light up whenever someone walks by.

If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilise. At Christmas, everything is possible.

The operation is an overwhelming success. Within a single month, 331 guerrilla insurgents give up the fight. Many say the Christmas trees were what did it. "Our commander wasn't angry. It was different to the other propaganda we had seen …. He was touched."

Meanwhile, the team at MullenLowe continues interviewing former rebels. This is how they learn that although just about all the insurgents knew about the Christmas trees, most hadn't seen them. That's because FARC tends to travel by jungle highway - the river. And that inspires the admen's next idea.

Operation Rivers of Light launches in December 2011. Colombians who live near the rivers and have been a main source of FARC recruits are asked to write to their brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and friends who have joined the rebel army. Their message: Come home, we're waiting for you.

These letters and small gifts are tucked inside 6,823 floating balls - transparent Christmas ornaments - which are then dropped into the rivers. At night, tiny lights inside the balls make the river twinkle as though lit by stars gliding into enemy territory. The result? Another 180 rebels lay down their weapons including a FARC bomb maker.

And so it continues. The following year brings Operation Bethlehem. In the course of their interviews, Carlos and Juan learn that guerrillas often become disoriented in the jungle. Even if they wanted to go home, they can't always find their way. So the marketing agency drops thousands of little lights from military helicopters. They also set up giant beacons on the ground whose beams pierce the sky and can be seen for miles around. Rebels trying to make their way out of the jungle need only look up, like the shepherds who followed the star to Bethlehem.

Then the team decides to bring out the big guns. If there's one thing guerrillas miss in the jungle, the guys at MullenLowe discover, it's their mothers. From the Colombian secret service, they get a list of women who have children in FARC. Some haven't seen their kids for more than twenty years. Carolos and Juan ask them for old childhood snapshots of the rebels, and the team places these pictures (which only the guerrillas themselves will recognise) in parts of the jungle where FARC is flighting. The photographs all bear a simple caption: Before you were a guerrilla, you were my child.

It's another hit, convincing 218 lost sons and daughters to go home to their parents. Once reunited, they're granted amnesty and sent to reintegration programmes to help them learn a trade and find a job. The secret behind the whole campaign? The rebels aren't seen as monsters, but as ordinary people. "We aren't searching for a criminal," Juan explains, "but for a child missing in the jungle."

Echt heel erg bedankt, Rutger for digging deeper, for uncovering true stories about our humankind and for restoring my me faith in the human species. Friends, if there's one book you gotta read in 2021, it's this one.

Take care. Stay safe.


Jen xo

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