The steps up to the conference room were plastered with faces. Faces of the missing fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, mothers and wives. They looked out at us, some faded, torn photographs, others as real as if they could be ready to pick up their child, eat dinner with their family, head off to work, today. Gathered in this hotel conference room in Bogotá were the women and men who had lost a part of themselves when their loved one was taken away in “the perfect crime”: forced disappearance.
We had been asked by the associations of relatives of the disappeared, LAWGEF and our partner USOC, to present our report, Breaking the Silence, at this national conference on forced disappearances. We were not telling these relatives of the disappeared anything new; they have valiantly labored for years, sometimes for decades, to pull an ounce of truth or a hope of justice from reluctant authorities. But we were there to stand by their side as they called for justice.
I talked to people who were still afraid. They spoke of paramilitaries who came to their little village, picked people out who were never seen again. One person told how the paramilitaries used chain saws to cut people into pieces. They spoke of landowners who used paramilitaries to disappear and displace their campesino neighbors. Guerrillas also disappeared people, along with their cruel practice of kidnapping. Paramilitary successor groups are carrying out disappearances right now, today. This is not a historic problem, a problem of the past.
I spoke to one fiesty woman who represented forty families from the Caribbean coast whose sons, just like in Soacha, were lured from their homes with promises of work and then killed by soldiers and claimed as guerrillas killed in combat: disappearances just to up their body counts, disappearances for profit.
As the conference's final declaration says, the associations of the disappeared and human rights groups called on the government to acknowledge the full, massive extent of disappearances in Colombia (see our analysis, here); make far more effective the “search mechanisms” and National Search Plan to which the Colombian government has committed; and identify the thousands of NN, or no name, identified bodies in cemeteries and graves throughout the countryside. The declaration acknowledged the creation of a new unit for forced disappearances in the Attorney General's office, but called for real progress in bringing these cases, 99 percent of which remain in impunity, to justice.
What you can't fully hear in the declaration is what I heard from the relatives of the disappeared and saw in their faces: a painful longing to have the Colombian government and society acknowledge the loss of their loved one, admit what had happened, see them as victims, and share their pain. The recently passed victims' law should provide some compensation to relatives of the disappeared, which is a significant step. But it does not provide for a full truth-telling, accounting, and justice, which these relatives of the disappeared long to see.
You can hear this pain and longing in this song, by the group Nuestro Tiempo, who put to music the words of children of the Vereda La Esperanza in Antioquia. “Dónde estarán nuestros abuelos, nuestros padres... Dónde quedó la justicia? Tantos años de tristeza y soledad, esperando la verdad... adónde se los llevaron, o las torturaron?, digan dónde están.” “Where are our grandparents, our parents... Where has justice gone? So many years of sadness and loneliness, waiting for the truth... Where did they take them, did they torture them? Tell us where they are.”
See their memory gallery here, where the children of La Esperanza tell of their parents and other loved ones. “My dad, I remember him as the best in the world.” And learn more about the victims' lives and their relatives' quest for justice in “Por lo menos sus nombres,” “At least their names.”
Where did they take them? Tell us where they are.