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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.

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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.

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When La Violencia ended, Colombia turned the page and looked forward, leaving victims' families bitter and angry and demanding justice.

"This is a country that was accustomed to ending its conflicts with wide-sweeping amnesties and pardons," says Sánchez. "The idea of victims barely existed, the dead were dead and that was it."

That's now changing. The Historic Memory Group has tallied 2,505 massacres in which 14,000 victims died between 1982 and 2007. The government has registered more then 145,000 deaths and disappearances, as well as more than 3 million internal refugees.

Under the so-called 2005 Justice and Peace Law, hundreds of demobilized paramilitary fighters and rebel deserters are confessing to thousands of those crimes in exchange for reduced sentences. This, observers say, is working as a catalyst for victims who are reporting their version of events for the first time.

Even though the conflict staggers on, the law presents "new opportunities to break the cycle of impunity," says Juan Mendez, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York.

But the way victims and victimizers remember history often differs greatly. Sometimes, because of the official setting of the confessions, the former fighters are given more credence than to those who survived their crimes. That makes for what Sánchez calls the "asymmetry of history."

A victim confronts his attacker

At the Bogotá headquarters of Colombia's attorney general one recent morning, Miguel Páez waits impatiently to see the woman who ruined his life.

When Elda Neyis Mosquera – or "Karina" as she is known – is finally ushered into a court hearing room surrounded by bodyguards, he rushes up to her and growls: "Look at me. Remember me. Remember that you castrated me."

Karina, a former commander of a leftist rebel group who surrendered in May, bows her head and is whisked away to continue her confession of crimes committed during more than 20 years in the guerrilla movement. Some of her victims sit in a nearby room to watch a live video feed of the proceedings.

During the hearing, Karina denies having even been present in the region at the time of Mr. Páez says he was maimed by her. "That's not true. It was her," he says to others watching. "Her version cannot stand," says Páez, gritting his teeth. "I know my truth, and I will tell it to anyone who listens."

The 'battle for history'

Mr. Bickford at the International Center for Transitional Justice underscores the importance of giving value to the victim's versions. "If the victims do not tell their stories, the victimizers win the battle for history," he says.

On Oct. 1, in a court in Colombia's second-largest city, Medellín, Ana Eugenia Rojas narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips as she watched a live video feed of a former paramilitary commander who admited to ordering the killing of her son, Edgar Quiroga. But he described Edgar as an important rebel commander. "He was no guerrilla," she said. "They wanted him dead because he was helping farmers fight for their rights. That is how he needs to be remembered."

Despite the different versions of history, there are some details only the victimizers know, such as where the bodies of their victims are buried.

Confessions from paramilitary and guerrilla fighters have helped Colombian government investigators uncover the remains of 1,689 people from 1,389 clandestine graves this year.

On Oct. 3, investigating prosecutor Alonso Alvear added seven more bodies to the tally.

Early morning clouds cling to the hills as Mr. Alvear leads a team of forensics experts, escorted by dozens of police, over mud tracks deep into the countryside of Colombia's banana-producing Urabá region to a village called Nueva Antioquia.

Unearthing war stories

As the forensics team digs where a witness said three people had been buried in an unmarked grave 14 years ago, townspeople begin to approach the prosecutor to tell their own stories.