Sábado, 10 de diciembre de 2016

| 2008/11/17 00:00

The ‘sons of bitches’ from the Palacio de Justicia

Jan Thiele, Dutch journalist, writes for SEMANA the impressive story of what he witnessed 22 years ago in a mass grave at the Cementerio del Sur cemetery in Bogotá

One of the two vehicles which arrived at the Cementerio del Sur on January 22 1986, carrying at least four corpses. Picture: Harry van der Aart-Semana exclusive

“The penetrating stench of the bodies physically followed me for at least two more days. Psychologically it comes back to me each time I remember seeing how they threw a body that, despite its disfiguration, looked like that of a woman.”

“Everything happened in the beginning of January 1986. I had lived in Colombia until 1984, when I moved to Argentina. In 1986 I spoke with my bosses in Holland in order to come back to Bogotá to do a story on the Colombian conflict. For my story I needed, as we journalists say, ‘local color,’ that is, in this case, elements which illustrate the climate of violence. That was how someone suggested to me to go to the Cementerio del Sur, a cemetery in the south of Bogotá where supposedly, every once in a while, they made mass graves where they deposited the unidentified dead.

Harry Van der Aart and I went there together. Harry is a Dutch photographer who accompanied me on that trip to the cemetery. We spoke with someone who seemed to be the cemetery administrator. It was a conversation in which I lied and told him that I was doing a story about the way different cultures buried their dead. ‘How is it in Colombia?’ I asked. And also, ‘What do you do with the dead who have no relatives or anyone to arrange a funeral or at least a decent burial?’ That was how it was confirmed that, in the cemetery, mass graves were dug on a frequent basis. Generally it was on Wednesdays or Saturdays at 8 in the morning. He also said that it was quite probable that they would open up another grave that same Wednesday.

So on Wednesday we arrived at the cemetery at 7:30 a.m. It was January the 22nd. I remember that, because it was near the end of my stay in Bogotá. I also remember because a couple of days after recording in the cemetery, and while I was processing the material, the news that the U.S. space shuttle Challenger had exploded within minutes of its launch was broken. That was on January 28, 1986.

Only minutes after we arrived at the cemetery two covered pickup trucks came in. One was a little larger than the other, but both were very old. The grave was already open. Before they opened the back door of the first truck, that if I am not mistaken was closed just by a cord, the cargo which they brought was revealed. It was unbearable because I knew that awful smell from previous stories I had done in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

There were aluminum trays, stacked one on top of the other, and nothing to separate them, where you could see feet and more feet. And on the side were several buckets. There were several men, too. Some looked on from a modest distance while others began to pull out the bodies. One of those men kept looking at Harry and me- more at us than at the frightful spectacle that we were witnessing. This man hardly took his eyes off us and seemed like he was one of those in charge of the macabre scene. Tray after tray, leaving behind a reddish liquid of blood and water, were unloaded. And the bodies were thrown into the grave that was about two meters deep. How many? I believe that there were about ten. I had seen cadavers on several occasions, above all in Central American countries which were embroiled in civil wars, but these bodies were different.

The buckets were full of the remains of the bodies, charred remains. There were a few bodies which were also somewhat charred. When they brought the buckets to the grave, body parts fell to the ground. I stepped on some of those remains by accident, because later at the hotel, I discovered something on the bottom of my shoe. I thought that they were ordinary bodies, of homeless people. That is until one of the men who carried a tray with a body, apparently the body of a woman, told me: ‘They’re the sons of bitches from the Palacio.’

I remember when I heard that comment, I vomited a lot. I never knew- and never would know for sure- if that Wednesday at the end of January 1986 I had witnessed the final destination from some of the disappeared of the Palacio takeover. The penetrating odor of some of the bodies still follows me. Whether they were from the Palacio or not, it still remains to be seen, but because of the inhumanity we saw, I can only agree with what my friend Harry wrote a few days later telling about that morning. “What I saw lacks any kind of human dignity, dumping an unknown and naked body into a mass grave. Damn it! These things can’t go on happening.”

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