To go forward, Colombia looks back
Colombia's independent Historic Memory Group hopes that airing the country's grisly past can help end the decades-old war.
For workers in this small town, Father Tiberio Fernández was a unifying force who helped them fight for their rights. For paramilitary chiefs and government forces, he was a rebel collaborator and a threat.Skip to next paragraph
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In 1990, he was kidnapped, tortured, dismembered, and dumped in a river, one of 342 victims in what came to be known as the Trujillo Massacre.
For years, most families of the victims of Colombia's four-decade-old civil war have quietly grieved and vented their anger among themselves.
Now their stories have become national news after last month's 300-page independent report on the Trujillo Massacre, the first of many intended to tell a fuller story of Colombia's hidden past.
In fractured, often uncoordinated, ways the victims – as well as former leftist guerrillas, former right-wing paramilitaries, and academics – are now reconstructing this nation's brutal history. Normally, this type of truth-seeking happens at the end of a conflict. Fear of retribution is a powerful silencer. But Colombians can't wait for peace.
"Society is demanding this now," says Gonzálo Sánchez, a renowned historian who leads the Historical Memory Group that compiled the report. He says Colombians want the truth and want to honor the victims.
Building an accurate record before a civil war is over poses a unique set of challenges. Prosecutions and truth-seeking before the end of a conflict have occurred elsewhere, such as in Darfur and Uganda. But these trials have been held in international courts and efforts to establish a record of events have been minimal.
Here, however, the urge to establish the truth is gaining momentum, even amid new murders, disappearances, kidnappings, and bombings. More than 10,000 leftist rebels remain at war, and many of the once-demobilized 30,000 paramilitaries are picking up arms again. Colombia is also in the process of trying some 3,000 former paramilitary and rebel fighters.
The result, in these strong crosscurrents, is often a messy affair.
"It's very hard to have the truth come out when the conflict is still in play," says Ginny Bouvier of the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded organization in Washington. "It has a silencing effect on the population."
Mr. Sánchez acknowledges that many of the stories being made public by perpetrators and victims are only half truths. Often those who have dared to tell the whole truth have been threatened, killed, or coerced into changing their story. "The history that is being told is being told under threat," he says.
But Sánchez defends the effort. "Normally this type of effort marks the last step of a peace process to end a conflict," he says. "But maybe here it can be a starting point to a peace process, why not?"
More than a monument
In Trujillo, the first step toward seeking a personal peace was the construction of a terraced monument for victims' families to remember their loved ones. Beneath each name, relatives sculpted bas-relief images representing each person and what he or she did in life.
The monument is an effort by the families of the victims to keep the memory of their loved ones alive. But for survivors, remembering their own isn't enough.
"Constructing memory is about the desire to be recognized [as a victim] and understood by the people around you," says Louis Bickford, an expert on truth-seeking for the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York, an organization that assists nations in accounting for atrocities. "It is also an attempt to assure the nonrepetition of the crimes."
It's something Colombia has never done before, even after the bloody partisan war known as "La Violencia, or "the Violence" from 1948 to 1958 that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives.