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Digging up the dead

Sept 09--Colombia is excavating its civil war dead for the first time — sometimes by going into active war zones.

9 de septiembre de 2009

After a taxing, three-hour hike into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Sandra Vargas spotted her family’s abandoned farmhouse — and the makeshift cemetery in the backyard.

It was here, on Jan. 6, 1991, that guerrillas executed her brother, Jose de Jesus Vargas, and ordered their parents to inter him.

Now, accompanied by forensic anthropologists, Sandra Vargas had returned to extract the remains of her brother and give him a proper burial.
“I’ve always wanted to do this but never had the chance,” Vargas said as the search team began turning over dirt. “I’ve been waiting for 18 years.”

The waiting is over for legions of Colombians whose loved ones were killed in the country’s 45-year-old war. The ongoing conflict pits leftist guerrillas against government troops and right-wing paramilitary death squads but most of the victims are civilians.

The excavations began in 2005 after thousands of paramilitaries disarmed. In exchange for lighter prison terms, the militia commanders — who ordered thousands of killings — had to confess their crimes and provide information on where the dead are buried.
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