“Bring them back alive, because they were taken alive”

The struggle of women in search of their loved ones, victims of enforced disappearance

So many years have gone by since my son was disappeared. Although time goes by, months and years, I won’t stop searching for him or the truth about what happened. Those of us mothers who search for our disappeared loved ones, we don’t see obstacles, we don’t hear discouraging voices; we are strong women with our eyes set on the horizon, searching for those who were taken from us; we are thousands of mothers searching for truth, a body to cry over, and more than anything… that this doesn’t happen again”.

The river water crosses Sibao stream—located in the municipality of Granada in Meta—gently flowing as a father, accompanied by members of the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation (FNEB), shows us where his son’s motorcycle was found. He was disappeared in 2017. Under the strong afternoon sun, we visit the places where C was last seen and his father tells us about a call he received in 2019 when unidentified men told him that his son had been murdered and buried near the river. Members of the Foundation meticulously mapped the streets and corners while we went to the river’s edge where C’s body could be found. His father told us that the vegetation had grown a lot in recent years, changing the landscape and making the search for his son more difficult.

C’s father indicating where his son’s motorcycle was found, dumped in the river, Sibao Stream. Photo: Margherita Forni.
C’s father showing a member of the Foundation where his disappeared son’s body could be at the river. Caño Sibao. Photo: Margherita Forni.

The next day, on our way to Puerto Rico, we stopped to pick up Ms. P. She led us down a rural path, stopping in front of a rice field. Her husband was disappeared about twenty years ago, accused of being a FARC-EP guerrilla. She scanned the rice field along the horizon as she also has an idea where her loved one’s body could be. Members of the Foundation follow Ms. P’s indications, as she shook her head, lamenting not having taken photographs in the past. The rice field had not been there before and now orientation is more difficult.

Ms. P. in the rice field where her husband’s remains could be. He was disappeared about twenty years. Photo: Tullio Togni.
PBI accompanying the visits. Photo: Tullio Togni.

These are just a couple of the stories from the families of victims of enforced disappearance, who participated in a workshop organized by the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation, on 22 June in Villavicencio, the capital of Meta. Meta is one of the departments most affected by the crime of enforced disappearance. PBI accompanied the event that was mainly focused on the right to truth, justice, and guarantees of non-repetition for relatives concerning their loved one’s enforced disappearance.


Members of the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation mapping where loved ones were seen for the last time. Photo: Margherita Forni.
Members of the Foundation accompanying a mother while visiting the place where her son was disappeared. Granada. Photo: Margherita Forni.

Around 30 mothers participated in the session. These are women who are searching, along with other family members, and the space was opened with an activity focused on the stories of those present, their stories of searching, and those of their loved ones. This sought to give visibility to those who were made invisible and to dignify their stories, which cannot be reduced to just the violent act of their disappearance. FNEB, along with the families, presented a report to the Truth Commission, the Search Unit for Disappeared People, and the Mayor of Villavicencio. The report includes suggestions and contributions to advance in the search for their loved ones and to achieve a country free of enforced disappearances.


Yanette Bautista, director of the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation. Villavicencio. Photo: Margherita Forni.
A workshop offered by FNEB in Villavicencio with women and families searching for loved ones. Photo: Margherita Forni

In Colombia, the armed conflict has caused multiple victimizing events, including enforced disappearance, categorized as a crime against humanity [1] by International Humanitarian Law (IHL), as it is considered a practice that constitutes an “affront against human dignity”. Enforced disappearance as a mechanism of violence operates through the arrest, detention, or any other form of deprivation of liberty and which results in the concealment of the victim.[2] The harm caused by enforced disappearance covers all dimensions of the human being, including, psycho-social impacts and a breakdown of the emotional, familiar, and community life of victims and society. In Colombia, most of this crime’s victims have been women in rural areas who experience disproportionate violence at the hands of all armed actors, legal and illegal.[3] It is the grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters who have promoted these search processes most. Through their tireless fight and acquired experiences, they become leaders and reference points for other women and relatives who are also looking for their loved ones.

PBI, Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation, and women “searchers”. Puerto Rico.

From June 23 to 25, several women “searchers” and other family members of disappeared people, accompanied by the FNEB team and PBI, visited the places where their loved ones were seen for the last time and where their bodies could be. As these women told us, the difficulties they face in the search process go beyond the emotional emptiness left by enforced disappearance. There are practical challenges too. In fact, even if they can locate exactly where the body is and, even though there is a law that prioritizes exhumations, the remains often rest in locations where buildings have been constructed. The construction of homes or hospitals, or places and landscapes that change over the years, complicate and extend the exhumation process.


Ariari River in the department of Meta. Puerto Rico. Photo: Margherita Forni.

In three days we visited different towns in Meta, from Villavicencio to Puerto Rico where we stood on the banks of the Ariari River, traveling through San Martin and Granada. The activities carried out by FNEB had the main aim of conducting interviews, mapping, and geographic surveys to reduce as much as possible the areas where the remains of the accompanied relatives could be and to remember, through the victims’ words and narratives, so that stories of those who have been disappeared do not fall into oblivion, condemning them to two-folded invisibility.

A woman “searcher” showing the photo of he disappeared brother. Puerto Rico. Photo: Tullio Togni.

During the accompaniment, the women “searchers” demonstrated all their strength and dignity in a tireless search for their loved ones, feeding into a collective movement. Despite all the attacks and threats that result from their efforts, they stay strong thanks to the mutual support and drive of the women who make up the movement: grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters united by the same pain, but also by the same fight, which does not stop in the face of obstacles and barriers. These are women who hold their heads high, with their eyes on the horizon, on the search for their loved ones, truth, and a fight for a country free of enforced disappearances.

Margherita Forni,

PBI Colombia.





[1] Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica: Huellas y Rostros de la Desaparición Forzada (1970-2010), 2013.

[2] Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica: Basta Ya, Colombia Memorias de Guerra y Dignidad, 2013.

[3] Ibid.


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