It is that time of year again. The decorations are out of storage, the tree is going up and excitement is in the air for the children in our communities. The spirit of Christmas is upon us. It is a time we often associate with peace, love, and joy. It is a time for friends, family, neighbors and communities to get together with loved ones spreading good cheer, but we must also remember, this can also be a hard time of year for some. Some people can feel lonely during the holiday season, missing loved ones or not having people to celebrate it and it is those who most need the seasonal community goodwill, and for others to extend the hand of friendship at this time of year. It is a time of not just joy and happiness, but one of forgiveness and putting conflicts to one side and there have been many examples of this in the past. One such powerful example was the series of unofficial truces observed along the Western Front during World War I around Christmas in 1914. Soldiers from opposing sides entered ‘no man’s land’ and spoke, exchanging gifts, and even playing a game of soccer. The is a powerful example of the spirit of Christmas.
There is something about Christmas and the holiday season that is unexplainable and for one person, Jose Miguel Sokoloff, a creative advertising executive from Colombia, anything is possible at Christmas. Colombia has only recently emerged from a 52-year war between the rebel group FARC and the government. During the later years of the war options were considered on how to end the conflict and bring society back together. The Deputy Minister of Defense had an idea to essentially start an advertising campaign to end the conflict. He wanted to change mindsets and felt that if advertising can be used to buy products, why can’t there be a campaign to stop the guerrillas from fighting. In 2006, Colombia’s Deputy Minister of Defense contacted Sokoloff hoping that Sokoloff’s talent could provide a unique way of ending the long-standing civil war.
They hired Sokoloff to convince thousands of fighters to give up their guns and come back home to their communities and to accept them back without firing a shot. How would Sokoloff do it? Well, simply, with soccer balls, lights, and Christmas trees, all of which are highly valued in Colombian culture. The series of campaigns took years of planning and coordination across the military and with communities.
In December 2010, the campaign launched “Operation Christmas”. At great risk, military helicopters carried two of Sokoloff’s colleagues into rebel territory (60 Minutes, 2016). They found nine, 75-foot trees near guerilla strongholds and decorated them with Christmas lights. Each tree was rigged with a motion detector that lit up the tree and a banner when the guerilla fighters walked by at night. It read: “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible.” What was the purpose of this? Sokoloff wanted to make coming back home for Christmas something important, something everyone valued. He knew that if they put up these Christmas trees with that sign up there, it may touch the hearts of the guerrilla fighters – and for some, it did. Roughly five percent of the rebel force at the time demobilized: they came out of the jungle and gave up (60 Minutes, 2016).
Another campaign, “Operation Bethlehem”, aimed to show guerrilla fighters the way out of the jungle, guiding them home to their families and communities. The military dropped lights to show them the way through the jungle and people made banners which glowed in the dark that said follow the lights. For those who wanted to leave but did not know how, or where to go did leave.
How do you reach your target audience when they are hiding in 150,00 square miles of jungle? That is not an easy question to answer. What Sokoloff discovered was that the rivers are the highways of the jungle and that is an area where some attention should be placed. So, Sokoloff launched a new Christmas campaign called “Operation Rivers of Light.” They asked people in nearby villages to send messages and gifts to the guerilla fighters which were placed inside capsules that glowed in the dark, then floated down the river. This was symbolic in showing that communities cared and that they would welcome back their former neighbors, friends, and family if they walked away from the conflict. The river became a beautiful sight of about 7,000 lights floating down the river (60 Minutes, 2016).
Sokoloff and his military partners never let up. They created dozens of campaigns each uniquely designed to show the guerilla fighters the way out with beams of light, stickers on trees and voices of ex-guerilla fighter leaders booming across the jungle but no voice was more powerful than their mothers. In 2013, Sokoloff found 27 mothers of guerilla fighters. They gave his agency pictures of their sons and daughters as young children that only they could recognize. During Christmas, flyers with those photos were dropped all over the jungle. The message was before you were a guerrilla fighter, you were my child, so come home because I will always be waiting for you at Christmas time. Because of this campaign 218 guerrillas gave up their weapons and did return home.
Over an eight-year period, 18,000 guerillas put down their weapons and came home, in large part because of Sokoloff’s campaigns. The advertising campaigns helped bring the FARC to the negotiating table in 2012. Sokoloff was publicly recognized by Colombia’s Ministry of Defense, with its highest honor, that’s rarely awarded to civilians, for his creative advertising campaigns to help end the war. The work he did in reaching out to those FARC guerilla fighters, who many believed to be too far gone, brought families and communities back together. He got people home for Christmas.
Christmas and the holiday season is a time of peace and, as you can see illustrated in this story in Colombia, it is also a time of hope. It is a time to think of others, a time of forgiveness and of becoming better versions of ourselves. With all these wonderful qualities that this season brings out in us, let us recognize how powerful these qualities can be and what good it can bring to others. If guerrilla fighters can lay down their weapons and come home because of the love shown to them, we truly can do anything in our lives throughout the year with love, joy, and forgiveness.