The choice on the ballot was simple: yes or no.
After years of negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC leaders in Havana, Cuba, a countrywide referendum on Sunday was set to ratify a peace agreement that would end the five-decade-long conflict.
Photographer Sebastián Liste, on assignment for National Geographic, visited the town of Quibdó on Sunday to document the plebescite process. In school buildings and town halls, citizens were given a ballot asking if they accept or reject the terms of the peace agreement. If ratified, the agreement would finally bring resolution to the longest continual conflict in the Western Hemisphere.
But as the votes were counted Sunday evening, the "no" votes emerged with a narrow victory: 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent, an unexpected turn in the path toward lasting peace. Those who voted "yes" were eager to bring resolution to the conflict. But those against it claimed that the terms were too lenient for former participants of armed conflict.
Liste spoke with National Geographic the morning following the vote.
Why did you choose Quibdó to photograph the historic plebiscite?
I decided to come to Quibdó to photograph the plebiscite because it's the capital of the Chocó Department, one of the most poor, isolated, and most affected regions by the 52-year-conflict between the FARC and the government. I wanted to see firsthand the enthusiasm of the people who live here—the enthusiasm to change the path of their lives. People in this region are the ones who have suffered most from the war; these were the victims of the conflict, and I wanted to give them a voice in this historical moment.
What was the mood like yesterday as Colombians in Quibdó arrived to vote?
Even though the vote is anonymous, the general feeling was that everybody was voting “yes.” They feel that that serious changes are needed in the region, and the only way to make this change happen was to vote "yes." More than a peace process with the FARC, this plebiscite was also the moment that Colombians had to say they've had enough of their endless history of violence. It is an opportunity for the victims to heal all the wounds caused by the war.
Was there an overwhelmingly positive or negative inclination to vote "yes" or "no"?
In Chocó, almost 80 percent of the population voted “yes” to end the conflict, but, unfortunately for them, the country [as a whole] didn't give them the chance to change. The dream of ending the conflict disappeared when the results came up.
Did anybody on the ground actually believe that this "no" majority was possible?
From what I heard, even the ones who voted “no” didn't believe that [they] actually had a real chance to win.
What happened when the final news of the vote arrived? What does it feel like today?
Quibdó is currently celebrating its most important festivital, San Pacho. Everybody here is saying that this is the quietest they've seen San Pacho in a long time; the people, the parties, the overall mood of the city is the quietest that [it] has ever been. For sure, the result of the plebiscite is affecting the population of this forgotten region. People here are so used to being ignored. They will keep living and fighting for a better life—whatever it takes—but they surely prefer to live in peace.
Sebastián Liste is a Spanish photographer based in Brazil.
Vaughn Wallace is a senior photo editor at National Geographic. Follow him on Twitter @vaughnwallace.