Nearing peace, Colombians seek missing loved ones

After decades of armed confict in Colombia the biggest challenge is to find the missing, estimated to number about 45,000 (AFP Photo/Guillermo Legaria)

Villavicencio (Colombia) – Dora Gonzalez found her dead husband’s body, but her son — like tens of thousands of other victims in Colombia’s half-century civil conflict — is still missing.

“You live your life wondering whether he is still alive, whether they are torturing him, whether he is eating properly,” she told AFP.

She has not seen her son German since 1995, when he was 13. He left to go to his aunt’s house and vanished.

In December, she found her husband Carlos and has given up all hope of finding German alive.

“Horrible, horrible,” said Dora, 54, fighting back tears as she recalled seeing her husband’s remains.

“I looked at his bones. I looked at his head, where they shot him. I saw how his bones had turned dark. That is very hard.”

She had last seen Carlos in January 2006, before the Colombian army captured him while he was bathing in a river.

She was told later that he was alleged to have been killed in combat.

Army troops are accused of killing civilians and passing them off as FARC guerrillas to win rewards.

State prosecutors located Carlos Hernandez’s remains in a cemetery where they were released last year under an agreement made during peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the leftist FARC rebel force.

The two sides are holding talks in Cuba and closing on a peace deal to end the conflict. They had hoped to sign a deal this Wednesday, but that deadline is looking uncertain.

– Thousands missing –

State investigators say they have recovered 6,500 bodies and handed 3,100 of them over to the victims’ families. But tens of thousands more are thought still to lie in remote and hard-to-reach areas.

“There is one subject that has not been discussed: the people whose bodies are missing in rivers and places where it will be difficult for us to find anything,” said Mabel Carrero, a state prosecution official working on exhumations.

There are some 45,000 people listed as missing due to the conflict, which started in the 1960s with a peasant uprising and has drawn in various armed groups.

The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that hundreds of thousands of people have suffered “forced disappearances” in the Colombian conflict.

“The main need the families have is to know — to know where the person is, what happened and in what circumstances,” said Deborah Schibler, the committee’s representative in Colombia.

For Dora, recovering her husband’s body helped soothe old wounds, but also raised new questions.

“It is in that moment with the loved one, which is so painful but also so intimate, that they start to ask questions about demanding justice,” said Pablo Cala, a leader of the non-governmental Orlando Fals Borda group, which gives legal advice to victims’ relatives.

“They want to know the truth.”

– ‘Bodies talk’ –

That means launching new proceedings that can last years.

Victims’ groups hope that the peace talks will succeed in setting up new special tribunals to speed up such investigations.

“The FARC must hand over information about victims that might show the force was responsible, and the state must also provide details about people who have disappeared which might implicate state agents,” said Adriana Arboleda, leader of a grouping of victims’ organizations.

Many families of civilian victims do not know who took their loved ones: the army, guerrillas such as the FARC or other militias like the right-wing ELN. But recovering the remains can yield crucial evidence.

“Every exhumation tells a story,” Cala said. “The bodies talk.”

Many families go on believing for years their loved ones are still alive and then have the shock of learning they were killed in violence.

“It is bittersweet,” said Cala.

Sometimes the remains are found hundreds of miles away from where the victims went missing.

In December the first bodies to be handed over under new agreements made during the peace negotiations were returned to the victims’ families.

They included FARC members and civilians killed by state troops for bounties. Some were children.

Dora now hopes finally to find her son and learn what happened to him.

“The best compensation is that they find my son’s remains and give them to me,” she said.

“I don’t care about money. I want justice. I want the people who did it to pay.”

Source: AFP