Chronicle | 3/12/2009 12:00:00 AM
Colombian women only find empty graves
Norah, Irleny and Marcela have been searching for the bodies of loved ones who were assassinated by paramilitaries. SEMANA joined them for two days when they were convinced that they would finally find the bodies.
Today the women aren’t there alone. One behind the other are a prosecutor, three investigators, four agents of the technical investigation unit (CTI), four soldiers, an Army captain, an informer and, behind them, Irleny Valencia, who, like Norah, has been searching for her brother in law’s body for nine years.
It’s possible that this is the most important hike of their lives. An informer and a demobilized paramilitary who don’t know each other agreed on the location where Byron Velásquez, Norah’s husband; José Yandú, Irleny’s brother in law and Gonzalo Serna, Marcela’s husband could be buried. Marcela could not join them because she didn’t have anyone to watch her two daughters on that day.
They have been waiting for this exhumation since the paramilitaries stopped a bus in San José del Nús and took the three men because, according to them, they were guerrilla collaborators. Their wives say that that is not true. They were street vendors in Medellín and ticket scalpers. In fact, that weekend they were coming back from a Shakira concert in Bogotá and were preparing a trip to Cali for a horse fair. “They did very well with bull fighting and horse events,” says Norah. “My Byron would come home with 700,000 pesos from just one weekend.”
At nine in the morning, when they arrived in San José, Captain Lozano, in charge of security, told them to wait until one in the afternoon because there had been fighting between soldiers and guerrillas in the area. While they waited, Norah began to tell her story. The first thing that she did was to find out in which town they had stopped her husband and a week later she went there. She sat in the waiting area where they parked the buses and began to ask about Byron. “After a little while a man came up to me and said ‘I am Commander Arrieta. I’m sorry, but your husband was executed.’” She says that she became full of rage and of questions that she posed to Arrieta. When? Why? Where is his body? Arrieta told her that they didn’t return bodies and ordered her to leave the town.
Norah didn’t obey him. At 8 p.m. she recognized the car of Arrieta’s bodyguard. It was raining hard and Norah decided to run behind it until she could catch up to it. She slapped the polarized windows and three guns pointed at her face. “Look woman. My commander had nothing to do with that massacre. Get out of this town.” She started to panic. She fell to her knees in the road that had become mud and began to hit the ground with her fists. “That night I went crazy,” remembers Norah as Irleny passes a tissue to her.
Ireny’s experiences are also cruel. “My sister died years ago from a sickness and left two children with AIDS who are now adolescents, who I love as if they were my own. They are José’s children and they have a right to know about their Dad,” says Irleny, as if she were continuing Norah’s tragic story. “There was a time in which I had to come up with stories for them so that AIDS wouldn’t defeat them. Depression can kill them.”
Norah says that she lost her appetite years ago. Irleny is beginning to lose her hair. Marcela suffers nights of insomnia. But love for their children and wanting to give their loved ones a Christian burial doesn’t allow for forgetting.
At 1 p.m., they start off for the hamlet of San Joaquín in three cars. When they arrive, the informer shows them which side of the ditch to walk. They go one by one and the captain tells them to stop. “Military intelligence has just informed me that this area is being repopulated by former paramilitaries. Are you sure that you want to continue?” he asks the prosecutor. She doesn’t doubt going forward for a moment. She looks at everyone and decides to continue. Twenty minutes later the informer takes off his sunglasses and points to a tree with roots in the shape of an octopus. “It’s here,” he says.
The CTI team breaks the earth with their shovels. Norah begins to cry and Irleny offers her shoulder. The only sound heard is from the shovels. Almost four hours go by and the news is not good. They have to quit because it is getting dark. They made two holes a meter and 20 centimeters deep. Two empty holes.
The next day while they walked towards the tree roots in the shape of an octopus the informer points to other places. They are small rectangles at a lower level than the rest of the surface of the earth. A CTI agent jumps on them, feels the ground and says, “This is too much.” He comments to the prosecutor that they could unearth more than ten bodies there. The idea was to return there after finishing the work at the other site. They arrived at the two holes, three hours passed, and they made three other holes and the news was the same. Nothing is there. Norah, showing signs of intense grief, covers her face. She is overheard telling Marcela on her cell phone “No, my friend. They have dug five holes here and nothing. Ask God that we find something further up.”
They retrace their steps to search the site that the CTI agent called a “cemetery” and didn’t find anything either. Only roots and traces of recent exhumations. It is now 3 p.m. and the captain reminds them that in an hour they have to get going. Seeing her friend lost in sobbing, Irleny picks up a hoe and begins to dig. She does so in a clumsy and hurried manner.
These types of situations have been going on constantly in the exhumations that the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, has undertaken since 2005 throughout the entire country. They cost on average of about five million pesos to perform. To date they have recovered almost 2,000 bodies but in other such cases they fail, among other reasons, like in this case, because the killers return to the area and once more hide their victims.
But before leaving something unexpected occurs. Érika, a young rural girl, appears and implores that they dig up her father from a grave. She explains to the prosecutor that her father was taken by the paramilitaries from their home four years ago, that they dismembered him, that her mother cannot sleep because of such sadness, that last Thursday they told her where he is buried, that she went to check it out, that she dug with her hand and found his little finger, and to please, don’t leave without helping her get her father back.
An hour later, and after requesting authorization, the team arrives to the grave behind a house that in 2005 served as a place of demobilization for the paramilitary Bloque Héroes de Granada, commanded by alias “Don Berna.” Érika takes from her backpack a black butcher’s bag and after untying it shows a pair of little bones. “Look, I found this last Thursday there. I believe that it is the little finger of my father.” Again there is shoveling of dirt and again the remains of Érika’s father aren’t found.
On the way back to Medellín the faces of these women are haggard- wet from so much crying and disfigured by sadness. Their look is one of loss and it seems that the explanations nor the consolation of others don’t matter to them.
They don’t move until a few kilometers before arriving in the city when Norah’s cell phone rings. “Hello, Marcela. Nothing, my friend. I arrive without anything. They’re still there on the mountain.”