Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Making the ‘Disappeared’ Reappear

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Jun 27 2008 (IPS) - “When they bring in (heads that still have) eyes, we close them, because it’s sad to see that look of terror, as if the killers were reflected in their glassy eyes. Those armed men stuck in the depth of the eyes of the dead scare us; they look like they want to kill us too.

Carrion-eating bird on corpse in Atrato River, Colombia. Credit: ManuelSaldarriaga/Fundación Dos Mundos

Carrion-eating bird on corpse in Atrato River, Colombia. Credit: ManuelSaldarriaga/Fundación Dos Mundos

“Because they ‘disappeared’ my brothers, tonight I’m waiting on the banks of the river, waiting for a body to come down, to make him my dead loved one. All of us women here in the port have lost someone, have had someone taken from us and killed, are widows and orphans.

“That is why we wait every day for the dead to be brought to us in the muddy waters, among the branches, to make them our brothers, fathers, husbands or sons…” reads the short story “Sin nombres, sin rostros ni rastros” (No Names, No Faces, No Traces) by Jorge Eliécer Pardo, the Colombian writer who won the “Without a Trace” national contest for short stories on forced disappearance this week.

The women in Pardo’s story collect the corpses, or pieces of bodies that have come floating down the river, gradually putting parts together until they have a complete body to “adopt” as their own family member, who is given the burial that they cannot offer their own missing loved ones.

The short story contest and a photography contest formed part of the three-day “Without a Trace” International Seminar on Forced Disappearance organised by the Fundación Dos Mundos (Two Worlds Foundation), which ended Friday.

“I have pulled dead people, even bodies without heads, from the Atrato river. I don’t know them, but I pull them to the bank so they can be buried, because it is a sad thing to see a human body being eaten by the ‘gallinazos’ (carrion crows),” Domingo Valencia, an amateur songwriter who lives on the banks of that river in the northwestern jungle province of Chocó, told IPS.

Dos Mundos, a local non-governmental organisation that supports young victims of violence and abuse, did not expect more than 50 stories to be submitted. But in the end, the jury had to decide between 427.

Reading them “was like opening Pandora’s box,” journalist Guillermo González, a member of the jury, told IPS. He said he believes most of the stories are true accounts.

They contain “the hidden story, the one that isn’t in the media, the one that reflects the tragedy of the families of the ‘disappeared’,” he said, adding that he had to stop reading at 8:00 pm every night, “because if I didn’t, I couldn’t sleep.”

In the stories, “there are no obvious, straightforward words denouncing atrocities, or morbid descriptions. Strangely, in this huge set of stories there is respect for words and for what happened, which is much harder-hitting than a raw description of what occurred,” said González, the director of the Bogotá cultural magazine Número.

He added that in Colombia, “the violence of the 1940s and 1950s reemerged because that wound never healed properly.”

And the “institutions of the state, which have sponsored these crimes to a large degree, have managed to keep them hidden.”

It is the work of researchers, intellectuals, scientists, legal experts and reporters “to close that wound, which is deep and present in the soul of all of us, and of Colombia.”

“Years of anxiety, bitterness and anguish” was the description of the lives of those who have lost loved ones to forced disappearance offered by Carmelo Faleh, secretary general of the Spanish Association for International Human Rights Law (AEDIDH), one of the speakers at the seminar, which was held at the Javeriana University in the Colombian capital.

Three relatives of ‘desaparecidos’ (victims of forced disappearance), sitting next to this reporter, all nodded their heads silently.

The seminar was organised for people like them, so that “international experiences and those of Latin American victims’ organisations can inspire these women, people who have been orphaned, and the hundreds of relatives of victims of forced disappearance who have not had a chance to be heard in our country,” Dos Mundos director Fernando Jiovani Arias, a doctor and psychotherapist, told IPS.

Participating in the seminar were representatives of victims’ movements, forensic experts and human rights activists from Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States and Uruguay.

Every 36 hours on average, someone is forcibly disappeared in Colombia, the seminar heard from Gustavo Gallón, head of the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) human rights group, who described the situation as “appalling.”

In the first five years after rightwing President Álvaro Uribe took office in August 2002, 1,259 people have fallen victim to forced disappearance, according to the CCJ, which said three percent of the cases are blamed on the leftist guerrillas.

“Public functionaries are compromised in one way or another in around 97 percent of the disappearances – 28 percent as a result of direct perpetration by state agents, and 69 percent as a result of tolerance of, or support for, disappearances carried out by paramilitary groups,” said Gallón.

The number of cases directly attributed to the security forces rose fourfold in the past five years, to 235 cases a year, compared to 58 cases a year between July 1997 and June 2002, said the legal expert.

The government frequently attempts to discredit these figures, but “we have not received any objection” since mid-2007, said Gallón, who explained that the CCJ’s figures are the result of two decades of work gathering information from “20 newspapers and magazines, direct denunciations, statistics from the vice president’s office, and other sources.”

The CCJ sent the attorney general’s office a document referring to 452 cases of forced disappearance that occurred between December 2002 and November 2007, to inquire about the legal status of the cases.

The attorney general’s office responded that one of the cases had gone to trial, another was in the pre-trial examination phase and three were in the preliminary inquiry stage. “Some kind of investigation” is also being carried out in 51 other cases, 125 others are not being investigated, and with respect to the rest, the attorney general’s office “did not respond,” reported Gallón.

The practice of forced disappearance, which was used during the decade known as “La Violencia” in the 1940s and 1950s, reemerged in the mid-1970s, but estimates of the number of victims vary widely.

Although forced disappearance was classified in Colombia as a crime in 2000, the Human Rights Observatory of the Presidential Programme for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law did not include it in its 2007 report.

The National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation, created under the law that governed the demobilisation of the ultra-right paramilitary militias, estimates that 20,000 people have been “disappeared” in Colombia, while the office of the inspector general (Procuraduría General de la Nación) puts the total at 11,000.

The Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (ASFADDES), meanwhile, has recorded 7,136 cases that occurred between 1977 and 2004. But a report by the human rights group warns that the figure is undoubtedly an underestimate, given the fear of local communities to report disappearances. In interviews and statements, members of the organisation talk about 15,000 victims.

In Gallón’s view, there is “a significant arsenal of judicial provisions that should be acknowledged and valued. Many functionaries, both civilians and members of the military and the police, have good will and good intentions, but nevertheless forced disappearance continues to be practiced.”

The problem, he said, is that “no action is taken against the perpetrators.”

“Public policies are very important, but what is especially needed, above and beyond documents, laws and legal mechanisms, is political will,” he said.

Participants in the seminar agreed that Colombia’s laws are excellent, but that they are not enforced.

However, “the judicial sector has, little by little, made an effort that I believe is unstoppable,” said Javier Hernández, representative in Colombia of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“Victims can no longer be swept under the rug in Colombia,” he remarked to IPS.

The victims “have taught me, have helped me,” said Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón, who was invited to the seminar. “Justice is a kind of animal, a mastodon that takes a while to arrive, that needs a boost, and that fuel, that food, comes precisely from the victims,” he said.

Garzón, famous for taking on high-profile cases involving crimes against humanity committed in Latin America, under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, defined forced disappearance as “the total humiliation of human beings to the very end.”

“In this context of human degradation, it is the victims who are most in need of protection,” but at the same time, “justice cannot be achieved without their support,” said Garzón.

He urged people to “kick up a row about what is happening, shock people about this problem, wherever it needs to be heard. The victims are an awkward presence because they demand justice and bring to light shortcomings in the system. If we are here, it is because the state has not functioned as it should, through its institutions.”

González said “the future is composed of the present and the past, and the future cannot be built on top of millions of corpses. The wound, first, must be cleaned and sutured.”

“We can’t look forward if we don’t have our backs covered,” said Garzón.

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