Enforced Disappearance: No Answers, No Accountability

Pictured: Widows Donatilda and Adalgiza

Ten years ago I sat in a small, hot room in Trujillo, Peru with a colleague and three women each clutching a folder. They held the folders as if they contained a fortune, and we leaned forward as one by one they carefully opened their folder to show us the precious contents. There were a few old photographs and scores of documents peppered with government stamps. When they finished, each woman closed her folder, looked at us, and said “I still don’t know where he is.”

The three women were talking about their husbands, victims of enforced disappearance. Some twenty years earlier the police had taken their husbands somewhere, making assurances to their young wives that they just needed to ask them a few questions and they’d soon be home. Days, then weeks, then years went by and their husbands did not return. The women went from police station to police station, then to the prisons, the hospitals and morgues but no one could tell them where they went, or rather, where they had been taken.

As we listened to them, I watched the way they treated the folders, holding them close to their chests, caressing the documents and photos as they showed them to us. I realised why the folders were so precious t them. It was because this was all they had left of their husbands. Without them, it was as if they had never existed at all.

Torturous Hope

Enforced disappearance is one of the cruellest human rights crimes.

There is the crime against the primary victim – who has disappeared – and this is compounded by the crime committed against their families and loved ones who endure years and even decades of wondering what has happened to them.

In the vast majority of these cases, the victim has been killed but the lack of a body or even information about their fate opens the door to hope that maybe they are out there somewhere. Hope, which is something we usually view as a positive thing, is distorted into a kind of torture as their families exhaust all their resources, financial as well as physical and emotional, to try to establish what has happened.

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The Path to Lasting Peace in Colombia Lies in Learning the Lessons of the Past

“Maybe you who came from the cities to see us can tell us, where did mass displacement come from? Where did this Clan Úsuga come from? Where did any of these things come from? Can you tell us? We do not know.”

The Protestant pastor held his Bible tightly to his chest as he stood and said these words. He and his wife had been forcibly displaced along with a large group from their church, forced to flee their rural village to the relative safety of an urban centre, after receiving threats from Clan Úsuga, a neo-paramilitary group also known as the Urabeños, one of the largest and most powerful violent criminal groups in Colombia.

We were at a meeting with about 15 church leaders who had travelled from across the region which was infested with left-wing guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – Army of the People (FARC-EP) and National Liberation Army (ELN), as well the Urabeños and other neo-paramilitary groups. They all had similar stories to share.  Most, like the pastor who asked these questions, were humble people from the countryside who had dedicated themselves to subsistence farming and their ministry. They are far, far away from the centres of power in Colombia both in terms of geographic distance and influence. Yet, as he expressed, they and the people in their communities are the ones who live and cope daily with the consequences of the decisions and agreements brokered in those centres.

Continue reading “The Path to Lasting Peace in Colombia Lies in Learning the Lessons of the Past”