Despite having heard the term “forced disappearance” many times throughout my three years in PBI, the concept never ceases to shock me. Yesterday, the international day for the commemoration of disappeared people, I reflected on the 60,000 victims in Colombia of this awful crime whose scars are visible on the faces of the families that every day wake up with the hope of seeing their loved one enter through the door, however, day after day they fall back into desperation with no answer to the eternal question: “¿where are the disappeared?”
Today the social organisations of Barrancabermeja, who have pushed the institutions to recognise the crime of forced disappearance as a State and paramilitary crime and practice, meet to commemorate the victims. Santiago Camargo from the Integral Peace Observatory (OPI) talks of the strategy behind forced disappearance: “they had to create terror to remove people from their territories”. He says that for each homicide in the Magdalena Medio region, 12 people abandoned their territories, displaced to other parts fearful for their lives. Camargo explains that paramilitary leaders have confessed that the people forcefully disappeared didn´t represent a threat, but were individuals chosen under the strategy of sowing fear in the communities, to displace people and control the territories.
As representatives from the various organisations and social movements greet the audience, the photos of the disappeared people are in the front row, “they are absent but present in every one of us”, explains Luz Almanza, leader of the Association of families of disappeared and detained people (Asfaddes).
The photo gallery of missing people is a crude yet human reminder of the scope of this crime and a attempt at placing the person and giving them life in the spaces of social struggle where they would have participated. The Integral Peace Observatory (OPI) is constructing a data base of stories of the disappeared people with details of how they were, how they lived happiness and sadness, in order to reconstruct the historic memory of these people, to resuscitate them and somehow allow them “to reappear”.
This year the event is held in a different context, one of hope for change that the social organisations of Barrancabermeja want to make the most of. The Peace Agreements between the Government and the FARC represent an opportunity for the social movement to push the issues that have been invisible for so many years and demand a convincing response from the State to the issue of forced disappearance.
With the creation of the Unit to Search for People given to be Disappeared in the Context of and because of the Armed Conflict, the victims will have an “incredible opportunity to directly participate”, according to Iván Madero, president of the Regional Human Rights Defense Corporation (Credhos). The victims are at the center of the Integral System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-repetition, according to what has been agreed at the negotiation table in La Havana, which seeks holistic reparation and restorative justice for the people affected by the armed conflict. Despite the concerns over how exactly the victims will be able to participate, the organisations are organising themselves to ensure that these commitments are fulfilled and the victims remain the pillar of the system.
Listening to Jaime Peña talking about the forced disappearance of his 15 year old son during the massacre of the 16th May 1997 in Barranca, of Luz Elena, “the mother who never surrenders”, according to the poster she is holding, whose three children were disappeared during the political genocide of the Patriotic Union, it is impossible to imagine the pain so many victims have had to live through in this country. The only thing that consoles me is the insistence and persistence of the victims´ organisations that, despite everything, continue to push and shout until true justice prevails. Again I leave this event with mixed emotions but with an overwhelming sense of admiration for the work of the bravest people in Colombia, the people who fight every day for a better country and for the memory of their loved ones who should be with us today.