Grieving country

War and violence have left a permanent scar in the souls of many Colombians. Deep depressions, lifeless towns, no hope. ¿Is psychological reparation possible?

14 de septiembre de 2009

Like specters wandering around the town. That was the way nurse Adriana Porras found the people of La Libertad, a town in the northern province of Sucre, one afternoon in June 2004. Some silent, some nervous. They were clearly disturbed. You could feel the fear, horror and guilt in the air. That day, in a sudden rush of rage, the people had taken justice in their hands fiercely attacking ‘Diomedes’, a paramilitary that intended to continue with the work his mate ‘the Bear’ had started seven years ago: subjugate and enslave the town. “Poor people of La Libertad”, thought Porras, “look what they have brought them to”.

The paramilitary had slaughtered more than 50 people from the town. They raped the women. They forbid to cry and sing. They became owners of everything the people had, whether it was their land, a bicycle, or a pot to cook. Everything belonged to them. People would burry their dead in a tearless silent event. The paramilitary punished men and women with heavy work, and forced them to attend their parties. They humiliated them and destroyed their dignity before the helpless eyes of the military and civil authorities.

Because of that, when the Peace and Justice process started, the people of La Libertad didn’t want to speak. “They looked like ghosts. They were hurt deep in their souls”, says Eduardo Pizarro, president of the National Commission of Reparation and Reconciliation. When a group of them attended the ‘free version’ [public hearings] of ‘the Bear’, he couldn’t deal with the pressure of seeing them in front of him. He excused himself and ran to throw up.

Because of all that, the National Commission of Reparation and Reconciliation chose this small village and their people as a pilot project of psycho-social reparation. This is an attempt to heal the wounds of war, rebuilding the town that is now completely abandoned, and erasing fear and distrust in people’s hearts, who know that the authorities frequently acted to favor their enemies.

La Libertad is only one example of a community affected by violence. The emotional and psychological drama that thousands of people in Colombia are going through has reached the status of a national health concern. Colombia is in fact a grieving country.

Women and children, who tend to be the survivors, have the deepest psychological marks. That is what NGO Doctors Without Borders has noticed. The NGO, that brings medical attention to communities caught up in an armed struggle, recently had to open a psychology office in Soacha (near Bogotá) and the province of Caquetá. They found most of the diseases people suffered came from grieving: headaches, insomnia, and nervous collapses are the most common symptoms. Most of the times, these sequels have to do with death and displacement. “But the biggest challenge is suspended grieve”, says María Cristóbal, responsible of the NGO office in Caquetá. This happens when people disappear.

It is all about the body

For the families of a missing person, there is no relief. José Daniel Álvarez knows that well enough. In January 1990, his father was taken by the paramilitary with 42 other men in the province of Antioquia. Days later, a bunch of bodies were exhumed, but none of those was his father’s.

For the people suffering this tragedy, it’s all about the body. So now, when they meet with other people that are going through the same, they want to accompany them. They specially remember the case of Domingo Toro, an 75 year old peasant whose son was disappeared by the paramilitary in 2004. His wife, according to Toro, died of grieve. Two years later, the body was exhumed an after several months it was identified. But it wasn’t given to Toro then. Some paperwork had to be done, and only until this year, thanks to the intervention of several NGOs, did Toro receive his son’s body. When he finally buried his son, Toro was actually happy and celebrated. He now believes he can die in peace.

The grieving issue is critical specially because of the amount of people going through it. More than 49.000 cases of missing persons have been filed, and the number of victims rises up to 200.000.

Not only missing ones, deaths, massacres and displacement have left grieving souls. Two of the most common crimes committed by the guerrilla are land mines and kidnapping, as well as deaths in combat, left many families mourning.

Kidnapping is one of the most difficult experiences to overcome. Psychologist and philosopher Silvia Diazgranados carried a study with 18 cases of soldiers who were kidnapped for three years after the attack on Miraflores (Guaviare province). She found out that their confidence on other human beings was broken, the confidence that allows us to live in community. They get attached to their fellow captives, and detached from their own friends and families. “When people go through continuous acts of cruelty and indifference, mistrust will mark their minds”, says an article published in the Social Studies magazine from Colombian University of los Andes.

There aren’t enough clinical treatments or therapies. The international experience shows that the most important issue is symbolic reparation, that is necessarily linked to a political transition, and to the empowering of victims. That is not happening in Colombia. The Peace and Justice process has left the victims behind. “ In the ‘free versions’ [public hearings], the roles of victims and victimizers don’t change”, says lawyer Omaira Gómez. “The paramilitary say what they want, and people can’t confront them”. The Prosecutors’ Office only gives psychological attention to the victims that face this horrifying experience if someone has a breakdown.

But the most important thing for a true psychological reparation is for fear to go away. Only if violence stops can people grieve peacefully, talk about the past and turn their dramas into memories. In Colombia, there is still a long way to go. Let alone, the example of La Libertad makes that clear: the pilot program of psycho-social reparation had to be temporarily stopped. The leaders have received death threats.

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