My visit to Familaires Colombia, an AJWS partner working to support relatives of forcibly disappeared people from the long lasting armed conflict, was profound. I came to understand some of the causes and the real impact of the conflict in the daily lives of people from small towns. It really surprised me, on the one hand, the terror that the illegal armed groups tried to plant in the hearts of people in order to silence them, and on the other hand, the strength of these people to continue walking with dignity, and their tireless pursuit not only to find the bodies of their loved ones, but also to find justice for them.
What really happened in Casanare?
In little more than a few months between late 2003 and early 2004, about 3,000 people, including civilians and combatants, were killed in Casanare, a department in eastern Colombia rich with oilfields and filled with rolling plains. I had a meeting with community members in Receptor and Chameza, two farming communities that were taken by the two predominant illegal armed groups. First was the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC), and then, with the excuse of combating the guerrillas, the United Self-Defense of Casanare (AUC), commonly referred to as the paramilitaries.
The AUS is a loose umbrella organization formed in April 1997 to consolidate most local and regional self-defense groups, with the mission of protecting economic interests and combating FARC and ELN (Spanish acronym for National Liberation Army) insurgents locally. The AUC is supported by economic elites, drug traffickers and local communities lacking effective government security. It claims its primary objective is to protect its sponsors from insurgents. In Receptor and Chameza, every farmer was stigmatized as a guerrilla supporter. The guerrillas used to wear black boots to walk in the mud, and these boots became a symbol of fear for many farmers. Thus, farmers using those types of boots were accused of being guerrilla members and some of them were brutally tortured and killed.
Many of the paramilitaries who committed crimes in this department never joined the demobilization of the AUC, and the main protagonists have died, are fugitives from justice, or simply are in the arms of the benevolent “Law for Peace and Justice” that strongly favors the perpetrators of brutal crimes. The perpetrator can easily confess hundreds of brutal crimes in exchange for a reduced jail time. Despite the great risk Familiares Colombia faces on a daily basis for its work, thanks to its determination to find justice, some of the most wanted paramilitary members have paid for their crimes—including the “Agua Azul” mayor who is in jail awaiting sentence. AJWS was the first donor for Familiares.
This trip was the first time I visited this community where Familiares Colombia works. At the beginning, the community members whose brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters have been forcibly disappeared were a little bit skeptical about my presence, since it was the first time we had met each other. Being skeptical is nothing new in Colombia since the armed conflict has broken everyone’s trust in each other. I explained AJWS’s history with Familiares Colombia and our philosophy of work and mission. Suddenly, people shared some of the most horrific stories I have ever heard. They began telling how the paramilitary forces arrived in their town, assuring them that if they were not hiding anything they would be fine. They announced themselves as a group that would protect the community.
However, very soon, community members realized it was a trick. A group of armed paramilitaries arrived unexpectedly by helicopter, terrorizing people and abruptly breaking into their houses to take them away, and accusing them of being part of the guerrillas. They took many and tortured them. Later, forensic teams found that people had been tortured and cut into pieces before they died. Some of them were burned alive.
The woman sitting close to me was narrating every detail, pointing with her finger to the mountains were the paramilitaries used to appear, describing the weather, the shadow of the sun, the color of the sky and every detail she remembered on that day; every memory and feeling of the last day she saw her two young sons. The rest of the group members were crying and remembering their own stories. With brusque hand movements they cleaned the tears from their eyes. They also mentioned how the military closed every exit of the town when people tried desperately to leave. They were trapped. Gladys, co-director of Familiares, asked some of them if they had already denounced or testified the military complicity on those crimes before the justice minister. They replied, “no, not officially.” She explained how important it is to denounce it in order to advance their process of forced disappearances cases in Chameza.
[The community members] mentioned that they used to be scared because nobody supported them. They thanked Familiars Colombia and AJWS for its support and said:
“Before your support, nobody paid attention to us, nobody heard us or followed our cases. We share a common thing with the Jewish people, the perseverance to fight for justice, the perseverance to look for our loved ones. We do not want to think of the horror we have lived through but we cannot forget and we must not forget what happened to us and to our families. We want to work to heal and repair the world, just as the Jewish people do. We want to congratulate AJWS for its 25 anniversary and we will continue searching for truth and justice.”
On that night, people from Chameza, Casanare turned out the lights of the whole town and youth decorated candles and designed and flew balloons. It was a celebration similar to the “dia de los muertos” in Mexico (day of the dead). The whole town joined together to laugh and enjoy. I saw the sky full with stars and colorful balloons. One of the women of the group came to me and said, “Can you see? We are alive.”
Angela Martinez is an AJWS Program Officer for the Americas.