…How the Forest Keeps its Secrets
It was one of those torrid May days, when the sun beats down on Barrancabermeja without mercy. The wharf is the only place in this oil producing city where there is a slight break from the heat and a bit of a breeze. We embarked on the chalupa (traditional riverboat) that will take us to the region of Sur de Bolívar, happy to leave behind the oven that is Barrancabermeja and enter the river’s cool arms. However, we are not traveling for a happy reason: we are accompanying a team from the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS), which hopes to locate a grave in the dense forests of San Pablo.
Once again, a grave. There, they found the remains of a young man killed by an armed group. It was 2003. Or maybe 2004. The community isn’t certain of the date. Once again, another victim of the armed conflict in Colombia. Once again, nobody has been able to identify the family of the man whose bones rest there. Even though in this case his name and his story are known. It is one more case, among many cases, of the families that have been victims of the violence in the Magdalena Medio. Many of them still live among a whirlwind of questions, what happened?, why did it happen?, and where are their loved ones?
Magdalena Medio is one of the regions most affected by enforced disappearance. While the oil refinery moves into the distance behind us, I begin to think about the city’s unnamed dead. I think about the massacre on 16 May, 1998, when seven people were killed and another 25 were disappeared in the city. Twenty-one years later, 17 families still do not have information on the whereabouts of their loved ones.
82,998. That is the number of victims of enforced disappearance in Colombia between 1958 and 2017, registered by the Observatory on Memory and Conflict at the Center for Historical Memory, which has warned that there is a major sub-registry of these victims. In only 52% of the cases there is information on the parties responsible for the disappearances. More than half are attributed to paramilitary groups, followed by guerrilla groups, post-demobilization groups, state agents, and state agents in collaboration with paramilitaries.
The signing of the Peace Agreement was a small ray of hope for these people. The Agreements signed in 2016 by the Colombian State and the FARC-EP included the creation of the Search Unit for Disappeared Persons (UBPD, in Spanish). Its mandate, since the signature, is to direct, coordinate, and contribute to actions that search for individuals allegedly disappeared in the context of the armed conflict, due to enforced disappearance, kidnapping, illegal recruitment, or during hostilities (regular and irregular combatants).
The UBPD is not a small project. Together with the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP, in Spanish) and the Commission for the Clarification of the Truth, Coexistence, and Non-repetition, the UBPD is part of the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Non-Repetition, one of the pillars of the Peace Agreement.
CREDHOS, which for decades has been working on human rights issues in the region, has already got down to work. It created a specialized team that travels to the locations, aks questions and investigates to identify the mass graves. In order to locate the graves, CREDHOS requests support from locals who know the area and the community well. That is why, once we reach San Pablo, we get in a pick-up truck to travel to a nearby rural community to meet up with Luis Francisco González, from the Small-scale Farmer Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (Acvc-Ran), who will guide us.
As we travel Luis Francisco talks about what it was like to live here during the conflict between the different armed groups, their fears, and how many families had to leave the rural areas to save their lives. Few returned. Meanwhile, the paved road becomes a dirt trail, which time and again crosses the Fría River. The rural community we are headed to is named after that same river. For about three hours we travel up the country hillsides and through the forest, until we reach the small hamlet. After being bounced around on the bumpy dirt road, I am happy to get down from the back of the pickup truck and stretch my legs.
Now, the third phase of our trip begins: the hike. It has rained a lot over the last few days, so we came prepared with rubber boots, which we now slip on our feet. According to information from our guide, we are going to hike into the forest for about three hours, entering the San Lucas mountain area. We advance quickly, at the speed of a local farmer who knows the terrain like the back of his hand, breathing in the clean air that smells of wet earth.
The obstacles placed before us by mother nature mean that we must focus all our efforts on the here and now. When the river, swollen by the rain, crosses our path, our guide helps us to choose the best stones to hop across the water. Falling in and being dragged away by the river’s current wasn’t something I had thought about previously. Walking along the path, my mind races. In what state will we find the grave? What will be the impact on the family once the remains are identified? The guide’s voice pulls me back from my thoughts.
– We have arrived.
A simple wooden cross announces that a body lies there. It is alongside a trail running between rural communities, a bit hidden, protected among the forest’s trees and undergrowth. The birds and the rushing river can be heard in the distance. At first glance, it appears as if the community has given the assassinated young man a burial ceremony.
The CREDHOS team begins its frenetic activity: they move out into the surroundings, registering the grave and confirming its coordinates. Once they have removed the plants and vines from the grave, we talk with Dainer Durango, a psychologist on the team, under the careful watch of spider monkeys that observe us from the trees’ canopy. It is not the first time he has done this. He explains that it is only thanks to information from individuals and communities that the grave could be located. Sometimes, exhumations are complicated, as the graves can be located in remote areas or there are no signs to indicate exactly where the body was buried. It is also necessary to take into account the location, the soil type which indicates the speed at which a body will decompose, or if there is a river nearby that could have washed away the remains. For an exhumation, it is important that nothing is damaged, thus how the body or bodies were buried and in what position must be taken into account.
But the work does not end here. On the contrary, this is just the beginning. A meticulous exhumation is still required, as well as the identification of the body, which is a slow and sometimes fruitless process. During the prior Justice and Peace jurisdiction, which investigated and tried the crimes of paramilitaries from the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), 9,410 unidentified bodies were found in common graves or buried, almost clandestinely, in cemeteries. Today, there is yet no information on about 3,000 of those bodies. The primary challenges are the access to DNA registries of surviving relatives and key information that only the family members can provide, such as, did they smoke, what clothes were they wearing, did they have tattoos, etc., questions that the investigators did not ask in those cases.
For CREDHOS, the next step is to find the family, displaced from the region years ago. Then, and only after interviewing and receiving the green-light from the family, will they contact the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) so that its specialized team of forensic anthropologists can carry out the exhumation, accompanied by CREDHOS. I ask Dainer if the family will be present at the exhumation. He responds that this depends on the family, because it can be a situation full of pain, with emotional costs.
After CREDHOS has collected its initial information, we leave the grave and begin our return. The sun is already setting, and it is too late to get down the mountain before nightfall. Luis Francisco invites us to spend the night at his farm, not far from the grave, where we are given food and a place to sleep. Outside, in the dark, the forest enshrouds everything. The same forest that guards this story, a story belonging to many.
 Vanguardia: Masacre del 16 de mayo en Barrancabermeja: 21 años “de resistencia y dignidad contra el olvido”, 16 May 2019
 Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica: En Colombia 82.998 personas fueron desaparecidas forzadamente, 23 February 2018
 El Tiempo, En fosas clandestinas y cementerios ya han hallado 9 mil cuerpos, 28 December 2018