It was the 12th of October, my birthday

Under the harsh sun, leaning against a burnt tree we watch Alejandro, Karen and Pablo as they prepare the excavation. They are looking for the remains of Feliciano, a victim, one of many, of paramilitary violence in Colombia. 12 years ago he was disappeared. 12 years ago his body was buried here. “12 summers and 11 winters” ago, Martin [1] puts it to us in the usual clear manner of the campesinos of the plain.

We are in Charras, in the department of Guaviare, a small town in South East Colombia. The region is located between the plains of Los Llanos and the Amazon Jungle. A short flight and a long car journey along a barely discernable road separates Charras from Colombia’s Capitol, the Megapolis of Bogotà. In October 2002 it was this route that was taken by paramilitary groups, the local campesions fleeing their advance. Those who could, headed for the department capital while the elderly and those with nowhere else to go sought refuge on their farms on the outskirts of the village. The paramilitaries however, soon found them and many were murdered during this incursion. Charras remained a ghost town for many years until the first returnees arrived in 2009 to begin the reconstruction of their homes and their past

We open an umbrella to shelter from the sun. Among the dry branches above us flies the white flag emblazoned with the PBI logo that identifies us as international accompaniment and observation. On this trip we are accompanying the Father Javier Giraldo, a prominent leader within the Colombian human rights movement. The Forensics begin their work under a tarpaulin while Karen plots the area that must be excavated. Two campesinos arrive on a motorbike, both with machete in belt and staff in hand. Quiet, yet friendly, they greet us with a simple nod of the head. After them arrives a small girl on a pink bicycle. She gets of her bike and wheels it over to the grass where the excavation is commencing. She is too young to know the victim who was the boyfriend of Maria, her mother. DSC_0044

The presence of family and friends of the victim is something new for the forensics who are normally surrounded by professionals from the public prosecutors office (la Fiscalia) and the CTI (The technical investigation team). In Colombia, civil exhumations such as this are a new method for supporting victims in isolated parts of the country and in September of last year PBI accompanied the Father Javier Giraldo to Charras for the first time in this work.

This is a pioneering project that will keep the forensics of the ECIAF (Investigative Forensic Anthropologists of Colombia) occupied for many years to come. There are believed to be more than 32,000 people forcibly disappeared in Colombia. Pablo tells us, “carrying out these exhumations will be the work of human rights defenders for decades to come, even our grandchildren will be involved in this.”

Our once white shirts sporting the PBI logo are now several shades of dirty brown, despite us keeping a good distance between us and the excavation site. We stand back firstly to not get in way, but also in order to respect our mandate of non-interference. Some time later the Father Javier Giraldo calls us over, it’s an emotional moment as the toes of two rubber boots are uncovered. Maria explains to us that these are the ones Feliciano had on when he left home that tragic morning of October 2002. They had arranged to meet later in the town. “He was in such a hurry he didn’t even eat half his breakfast”, it was curious how she remembered these little details, “he wanted to repair a fence and needed to buy materials in town.”

That afternoon in 2002 Feliciano didn’t turn up and, fearing for the worst, Maria began looking for him. She found him in this same field we are in today, “they had shot him three times in the head and twice in the chest. The trees were covered in blood”. Now the forensics are working with more care as now, little by little, they are uncovering a pair of grey trousers. Karen explains to those around her that the pelvic bones are those that are generally best preserved. The soil in the Guaviare is rather acidic and breaks down human remains very quickly. Luckily, Feliciano’s body has not been cut up with a chainsaw or a machete unlike many others. “The bones are covered with a membrane which protects them.” Alejandro tells us, “when the bones have been broken, micro organisms can enter and decompose them from the inside out.”

Karen discovers the skull, locked in a silent scream. The eye sockets appears in the dry earth and, little by little, working meticulously, the forensics unearth the skeletal remains of Feliciano’s face. The cranium has been caved in, but a blue and grey check shirt holds it together. Maria tells us that “he would always protect himself from the sun. Although he was young, just 32 years old, he lost his hair very early.”

Violence in the Guaviare has claimed innumerable victims. In Charras alone, a hamlet of just 70 people, 23 were disappeared and their bodies buried in the surrounding countryside. Maria had returned a little after the murder of Feliciano to bury his body. The Paramilitaries were still in the area and did not allow their victims to be buried in order to spread yet more fear. A few other campesinos went with Maria, fearing that at any moment the Paramilitaries might come back. Miguel asked Maria what day it was “it was the 12th of October, my birthday, I remember it perfectly. Camilo had climbed a tree in order to keep a look out in case the “paras” decided to come back. When we lifted the body something sticky split onto my boots”.

The body of Feliciano has now been completely uncovered and, although it feels strange, seeing these remains doesn’t seem to shock us. There was something exemplary and honourable about them. It felt as though this reunion with Feliciano will go on to give strength to the people of this community. It’s a symbol; they won’t let themselves be oppressed by the violence.  This type of exhumation has the advantage of helping the friends and relatives of the deceased to overcome the violence. Hence, the community pushes forward the collective work of breaking the silence and rebuilding their collective memory. The Father Javier Giraldo gives blessings in honour of the deceased and sprinkles some holy water on the remains of Feliciano. Later the town will hold mass to remember the disappeared, one of the first for a long time.

We stay 5 days in Charra, during which the team exhumed four victims. Three of them identified by the clothes they had on and the area in which they were found. Returning to Bogotá, we have with us several crates each the size of a box of bananas that Karen will hand in to the Public prosecutor’s office which will now begin the process of testing and examining the DNA. All this will take one, or even two years, after which the remains will be handed over to the families of the victims during a state ceremony. The death certificate and the acts of Forensic Medicine will help the victims pursue justice from the state. With this, the trauma for the relatives will subside, but the work of recovering the collective memory will go on, in Charras and in Colombia.

–          Stephan

Stephan Kroener has been a volunteer with PBI Colombia since May 2012

[1] In order to preserve their privacy, all the names the family members still alive today have been changed.

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