| 2010/09/22 00:00

The battle for memory

The National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation presents new reports on four emblematic cases of the violence in the last two decades. Why Colombia must not forget the horrors of its past.

The battle for memory

It is often said that Colombia suffers from amnesia. That’s perhaps because each war period has been followed by a peace pact that buries the past, as if in order to move forward, horror shouldn’t be remembered. As if remembering would pour salt into the wounds. Victims of 1950’s Violence would have been forgotten so that the National Front was a feasible project, if it wasn’t for a group of intellectuals —Bishop Germán Guzmán Campos, Orlando Fals Borda and Eduardo Umaña Luna—, who exhumed files and gathered testimonies in the country and in some villages, and then figured out what had happened during that unhappy period. If it wasn’t for that study, called “La Violencia en Colombia” (The Violence in Colombia), we may never have known that 300.000 people were killed in those years, that there were all sorts of horrific methods and that there were deep links between urban political circles with the killings. It was, somehow, a pioneering antecedent of all the truth commissions that now swarm in several continents.

There is an explosion of memory throughout the world. Virtually every conflict has been followed by a Truth Commission, a War Trial or a wave of statements disseminated by all available communication means in the modern world. Acts of truth and reconciliation in South Africa, where perpetrators asked for forgiveness, were broadcasted by television in a model which was later criticized for the lack of justice it represented. In countries like Argentina and Peru where there were truth commissions, now there are delayed justice processes. The picture of old General Videla, dozing in his chair before an Argentinean court which accused him of atrocious crimes, can’t be any more exemplifying of the old adage: “the past does not forgive”. Spain, that had opted for silence and oblivion, is now reopening its past with all the political debate that it implies.

In Colombia, a portrait of the last two decades is being sketched from the statements of perpetrators and victim’s testimonies before the Justice and Peace process courts. And the picture is terrifying: rapes, killings done with the complicity of official security forces, forced displacement as a systematic policy to get hold of lands, recruitment of children who went from being victims to perpetrators. Revenge, retaliation, some’s resentment and indifference by a vast majority.

With such a picture, and as ordered by the Justice and Peace law, the Historic Memory Group of the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation was established, including a select group of intellectuals. This group, headed by historian Gonzalo Sánchez, has chosen to investigate emblematic cases as samples of a thousand-headed monster. This week the commission presents four new reports on the following cases: La Rochela, where 13 judiciary investigators were killed by a paramilitary group in 1989; Bojaya, where between 74 and 119 people died when a FARC squad threw a gas cylinder over a church where villagers were taking refuge from a combat between that guerrilla and a paramilitary group in 2002; Bahía Portete, where four children were incinerated and eight women were savagely executed in 2004, and another one about the struggle for land on Colombia’s Atlantic coast. These were added to reports on Trujillo and El Salado massacres, presented in previous years. The books are both a mirror of the past and a window towards the future. On the occasion of these works’ publication, SEMANA Magazine presents this week journalistic special about them.

But the task led by this group of intellectuals, admirable indeed, is just the first step towards a broader political agenda: memory as a democracy-strengthening scenario. Memory is a battleground where individuals or groups of people narrate violence according to their own experience. The face of the nation in the future depends largely on their strength. Memory is a place for inclusion, for the recognition of others, a place to close wounds and settle unfinished issues. Memory can be a political milestone, if done with democratic spirit. A way of moving from a war condition to one of reconciliation. It can be the first step towards a peace agenda.

Human Rights organizations have invested a lot of energy over the years, betting for a memory that can work against impunity. The Jesuit priest Javier Giraldo has dedicated a lifetime to thoroughly document killings and massacres occurred in Urabá (Antioquia and Chocó departments), Trujillo and other regions, in a database that will perhaps be the starting point for any truth process in the country. But memory does not end in the demands of justice, because justice, after all, judges people and their actions. "Every punishment is memory," says Ivan Orozco, a member of the Historical Memory Group. Moreover, impunity is the most brutal act of disdain and forgetfulness. But it belongs to the political sphere to understand and explain these contexts. So the battle for memory is a political debate and not just a legal or academic one.

Therefore, a whole witness and survivor ethics is being built in this rising wave of demands for memory. It is necessary that this ethics become a political program, so that it can be an exemplary memory and not only an anchor in the past suffering. The initiative has been taken by some municipalities, such as Bogotá and Medellín, which are building two separate memory centers about the conflict, large-scaled and of a great social impact.

Making memory to become politics implies, for example, that education field devotes itself to the task of making new generations understand its recent past. It implies also that secret but crucial files in various intelligence agencies should be declassified, as has been discussed in recent days. It also implies that the State recognizes that rules like those that helped legalizing the self-defense squads in the past were dire and that they encouraged violence. And it finally implies that the various political actors that were involved in war receive exemplary social sanctions, in order to banish the practice of obtaining power or territories through the use of violence. The memory implies facing the necessary reforms to redress the ravages of war. Land restitution is an example of how memory becomes a concrete action that changes the lives of people who lived the conflict and an action that helps starting to build a more civilized country.

It is also crucial that victims find the recognition which for so long have been denied to them in the public scenario. Nearly 30 years ago, Gen. Fernando Landazabal Reyes said the country had to learn to listen to his generals. And it indeed has. Now, Colombia has to learn to listen to its victims and to return them the recognition of the injustice their suffering has meant. Journalism and Arts are vital for that purpose.

Because just as thousands of killers did what they wanted for years, social indifference contributed scaling the evilness of war which has made us become what we are today: a bled country. A country that, in less than half a century and perhaps because it doesn’t know it, has repeated its story.
Click here to read this special report in our edition in Spanish.

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