Over the past decades, both Peru and Colombia have experienced internal conflicts which involved extreme levels of violence in many regions and high loss of life. While the conflicts were political (pitting far left groups against the government and/or far right paramilitary groups) they directly impacted ordinary civilians and civil society, including churches.
In many cases, Christians, especially church leaders, were targeted for different reasons by the various armed actors. This directly affected freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in those areas.
In both countries, the larger Church (composed of many different denominations) found itself looking for ways to respond to the conflict and especially how to support the churches, Christians and others living in conflict zones.
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.
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.