Colombians Commemorate First Official Day Honoring Conflict Victims

Tuesday, April 10, 2012
On April 9, Colombians commemorated the nation’s first Victims Day with public events and activities across the country. In Bogotá, victims of violence marched with fellow citizens from the Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Municipal Theater to the Plaza Bolivar for a concert sponsored by the Bogotá’s mayoral office. The march passed through four stations set up by non-governmental organizations featuring galleries, art pieces, and performances dedicated to the memory of victims of conflict in Colombia.
“This day will go down in the history of Colombia, because today we are taking an important step toward reconciliation in this country,” said Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos during a commemoration in Villavicenio, Meta. He presented reparations to selected victims saying, “Peace begins with reparations for victims.”
On April 9, 1948, then Colombian presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated. His death unleashed decades of conflict known as La Violencia, or The Violence. Colombians have long-marked the date in commemoration of Gaitán’s death, but Colombia’s National Victim’s Law, passed last year, formalized April 9 as the National Day of Memory and Solidarity With Victims. The law called on the State to “carry out events in memory and recognition of the acts that have victimized Colombians, and [to] also carry out special activities related to the promotion of the rights of victims.”
While both the national and city governments supported public activities yesterday, civil society groups have been working for years to document victimization in Colombia. These groups have created and publicly displayed memory galleries that represent victims’ interpretations of the violence they have endured and offer analysis of the country’s conflict. In 2007, the Colombian non-governmental organizations Minga, Agenda Caribe, and the Manuel Cepeda Vargas Foundation collaborated with the U.S.-based NGO Lutheran World Relief (LWR) to develop a memory gallery based on the experiences of communities in two regions particularly marked by violence in recent decades: Putumayo Province and San Onofre, Sucre. The gallery, which was first on display in communities throughout the United States and then in the U.S. Congress, took on new life this year with support from the U.S. Institute for Peace. Focusing on communities victimized by violence in Catatumbo and Montes de Maria, this second gallery is entitled “We Are Land.”
“We Are Land” opened on March 20 at Bogotá’s Rosario University and was on display on April 9 in Parque Santander, in downtown Bogotá, as part of the city’s Victims’ Day commemoration. It will be up for public viewing later this year in Cucuta, Cartagena, and Putumayo. The following photo essay is a series of images of the "We Are Land" gallery and events in Bogotá on April 9.
Introductory text to the gallery:
The Memory Gallery "We Are Land" is a space for celebrating the lives of those individuals who live in Cataumbo and Montes de Maria, but it is also a space where we encounter the brutal violence that the people of these regions have experienced. It is a space where we recognize human dignity, where we can reconstruct stories of the past based on voices of the present. These are stories of lives broken by war, but they are also stories in which victims, witnesses, and survivors have used song, fruit, tobacco, panela, and palms to sew new hope.
The gallery invites viewers to walk the land of these regions, a land inhabited by smiles and song despite being marked by the fear and the amnesia that feed war. The gallery invites us to open the many drawers of memory, a dense memory that evokes good and bad days. It is the memory of fire warming coffee in the morning, the echo of women’s voices rising from the river’s edge, the sounds of cows, and the songs from the radios that resonate in every corner of the land. It is a memory made from the echoes of painful screams, and from the echoes of brave voices denouncing disgrace.
“We are Land” is a gallery by and for the victims of guerilla forces, paramilitaries, militaries, and all of the armed groups that have sustained violence in this country.
Yo Vengo a Entregar mi Corazón/ I Come to Turn in my Heart: A vanity table filled with objects representing rural life and culture in Colombia´s Montes de Maria region. Each drawer includes seeds native to the Montes de Maria, and the small side closet is filled with blocks of panela—a pure sugar made from cane in rural Colombia and a central part of the campesino diet. As viewers open the vanity´s drawers, voice recordings of victims recounting their experiences with violence play through a speaker. The piece represents both natural landscapes and rural livelihoods that have been destroyed by conflict. It also demonstrates the love for, and commitment to, land felt by the victims of violence who designed this piece. It is an intimate portrayal of the natural world that sustains rural Colombians and the personal connection displaced campesinos feel to the land they have been forced to abandon. “Art is one of the best ways to touch the emotions of people. Human Rights work requires us to move people, to move them toward working for victims and reparation. Art touches that which statistics cannot.” –Gloria Florez, Member of the Andean Parliament. Remarks made at the opening reception of “We are Tierra.”

On display April 9 in Parque Santander. “I Come to Turn in my Heart” sits just below a towering statue of Francisco de Paula Santander, a leading figure in Colombia´s independence movement, in downtown Bogotá. Hundreds of Bogotanos were able to view the piece. Here we see a young man observing the vanity from afar as he decides whether or not to sit and listen to the testimonies of victims that play through a speaker attached to the piece´s mirror.

Victims created this piece from materials found in Montes de Maria. The piece contemplates the diversity of flora and fauna in Montes de Maria, and of daily farm life in which the nests, and products, of chickens and roosters play a sustaining role. The piece also touches on the irony of the name “Black Eagles”—the name of a reorganized paramilitary group in Colombia that has been responsible for acts of violence in the Montes de Maria region. Victims say the Black Eagles are one of many armed groups responsible for making violence as typical a part of daily life as tending to chickens and roosters once was. One victim who contributed to the construction of this piece noted, “Nests. That is where all is born in the countryside and that is where the Black Eagles now attack.”

“Three Nests” delicately stacked on a trash can in downtown Bogotá waiting to be put on display for Colombia´s first National Day of Victims. The piece accompanied ten other gallery pieces from the “We are Land” gallery displayed in front of Bogotá´s central Gold Museum and was framed by smaller galleries on exhibit by various victims organizations. The sign above the nests reads, “Bogotá belongs to all of us. Take care of it.” A survivor of the January 2001 Chengue, Sucre, massacre, in which paramilitaries of the Self Defense Forces of Colombia killed 27 people, helped to build the “Three Nests” piece. In reference to the gallery and to Colombia´s National Day of Victims he explained, “There is still conflict, it is a shame. But [with this gallery] we have brought to light things that have always been hidden . . . The idea is not to forget. Powerful people want us to forget, but we don´t want these violent acts to be repeated.” Testimonies have revealed that the Chengue massacre was carried out by the paramilitary group Self Defense Forces of Colombia under the command of Rodrigo Mercado Pelufo, alias “Cadena.” Prior to the massacre, citizens of Chenque officially requested protection from the Colombian state as they had received threats of violence. The town was left vulnerable to the attack in which nearly 80 paramilitaries tortured, murdered, and disappeared residents of Chengue.

El río de las tumbas/ The River of Tombs: Seven aquariums designed to represent the many rivers in Colombia where armed groups throw the bodies of their victims. Each aquarium contains articles of clothing that might belong to a campesino victim lost to the rivers, including a coastal “sombrero volteado”—a typical hat worn by farmers in the Caribbean region—a leather belt, and colorful plastic sandals used by campesino women throughout Colombia. Text accompanying the piece and written by victims of violence in Catatumbo and Montes de Maria reads, “A fragment of the river robbed from the meanders. There, where the tombs of the dead are accommodated; they are the dead of the water, melted into the bottom of nothingness; they are and they will be disappeared forever. Nobody calls out to them because they do not exist; nobody cries for them because they will simply dampen like ephemeral paper that is diluted in the river of oblivion, the oblivion that always erases histories written in blood; nobody looks for them, because they were taken by the current of history that will never be told nor sung . . . They have disappeared with the fish in a deep and constricted garden.”

A university student and two men on their way to work stop to view “The River of Tombs” in Bogotá´s Parque Santander.

Fresco Seated in front of the piece entitled “Fresco,” Francisco Bustamante of the Colombian non-governmental organization Minga explains the piece´s significance to members of the public gathered for Colombia´s National Day of Victims. His narration of the piece instigated a lively and impromptu debate between members of the public. It developed into a discussion on the roots of violence in Colombia and possible approaches to achieving peace. A play on words, the title refers to the Fresco style of painting while also evoking the Colombian term “fresco,” meaning fresh, or in colloquial speech, “cool” or relaxed. The title aims to question the relaxed and even indifferent attitude of a public inundated with images of, and information about, acts of violence in Colombia. The painting is a representation of the 1996 massacre near the town of La Gabarra where members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerilla group killed an estimated 35 young men known as “raspachinos”—hired hands to harvest and help process coca leaves. According to survivors’ testimonies, the victims’ hands were tied behind their backs and each were shot while accused by the FARC of being members of the paramilitary groups that controlled coca production in La Gabarra. Text accompanying the piece reads “These are the ‘raspachinos’ murdered by the FARC . . . boys just like the boys who killed them; boys that will never return to the dance of life; dead boys whose bodies, so far from life, rot in the heat . . . where the stake of hate burns.”

Sustenance for Whom? / ¿El sustento para quién? The Renault 12 is an emblematic car in Catatumbo. There, self-employed drivers have used this model for years to transport people and food such as bananas, rice, and yucca. This gallery piece, a life-sized Renault filled with the branches and the fruit of African Palm plants, is a homage to both the car and its drivers who are exposed to great risks as they travel through territory plagued by conflict and controlled by illegal armed groups. Text accompanying this piece explains, “The [drivers] risk their lives each day to transport the goods that sustain rural life, and to earn enough money to sustain themselves in a country with limited [employment] opportunities . . . [ this piece is also for] the drivers . . . who have been murdered while trying to transport food to their own families.” “Sustenance for Whom?” also calls into question the emphasis on African Palm as a viable crop for rural Colombia. Many communities have been forcibly displaced from their land to make way for the planting of African Palm, a non-food crop, and many campesinos believe African Palm plantations will ultimately destroy more sustainable agriculture crops and practices. The Renault on display in Bogotá.

Annalise Udall Romoser is based in Bogotá, Colombia, and is the Lutheran World Relief´s Communications Officer for Latin America. Thank you to the organizations Minga, Agenda Caribe, and the Manuel Cepeda Foundations for contributing text and photos. Translations by Annalise Udall Romoser.

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