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Ending the cycle of bereavement

Spanish version

Ten years ago, on 1 January 2000, in the municipality of La Dorada, Putumayo, in southern Colombia, Nancy Galarraga was called to ‘La Marranera’ by a paramilitary commander. The man told Nancy not to worry, to go home and that “the girls would come home later”. Patricia, 22; Monica and Nelsy, 19-year-old twins; and Maria Nelly, 13, never returned.

Galarraga and her grandson are relieved to have found their loved-ones but their suffering continuesFiscalía General de la Nación - Colombia © On 7 July 2010, four white coffins adorned with flowers and portraits were placed atop a large table.  This was a rather unusual ceremony, which experts said was meant to close the cycle of bereavement caused by the enforced disappearance of four young women. According to their family, 10 years after their disappearance, torture and murder, and in the midst of immense pain, their dignity was returned to them, at the United Nations Human Rights office in Bogota, Colombia. Their mother, sister and four orphaned children displayed a profound sorrow that was difficult to describe.

Six months ago, a Colombian prosecutor reported that a mass grave had been exhumed by the Attorney General’s office. The coordinates for the site had been provided during the depositions of two former paramilitaries, who aimed to benefit from their cooperation and gave details on where to find the remains of the Galarraga sisters.

After digging up over 100 clandestine graves with their own hands and handing over the human remains to the Attorney General’s Office, Nieves, the mother of the young women, their sister Nancy and their four children were relieved that their wait was finally ended. Their pain, however, continues. Nieves says that she is tired of suffering. She cries and says that her daughters’ dignity has been returned to them, because everyone now knows that they were happy, good, and hard-working young women. She remains angry that after their disappearance no one did anything. And she asks that justice be done.

Enforced disappearances occur when, with the involvement of State authorities, a person is forcibly removed from public view and his or her whereabouts is intentionally undisclosed. As a consequence, victims are placed outside the protection of the law. In most cases, the only verifiable information provided will relate to the circumstances in which the victim was last seen alive and free.

Nieves asks for help. She wants her grandchildren to have an education but doesn’t have enough money to send them to school. She worked all her life. She had come to Putumayo as an agricultural worker to plant rice, and corn and eventually was forced to move because of the constant death threats she received when she began enquiring about her daughters’ whereabouts.

“They felt powerful in front of the innocent girls: slitting their throats, raping them”, repeated Nieves as she looked at the coffins.

The UN Human Rights office in Colombia was honoured when it received the request to hold a ceremony of this kind in its offices. Opening its doors to the victims and to authorities during the handing over of the mortal remains, after the enforced disappearance of the three young women and girl, is a painful experience. At the same time, it was an opportunity to insist that laws be passed to enable processes of truth, justice and reparations. The message to Colombia is clear: international human rights law prohibits enforced disappearance and compels the State to search for and find missing persons.

“It is very sad to receive the remains of these young women, but at the same time it's an honour to receive your family in this office. We understand your pain and sympathize with you. We express our solidarity and join together in demanding justice for the serious human rights violations committed by paramilitary groups”, said Christian Salazar, head of OHCHR in Colombia. “The right to the truth and the need for reconciliation do not diminish the call for justice. Our job is to continue working to find missing persons as well as call for prevention, investigation and punishment of the offence of enforced disappearance.”

After over 40 years of armed conflict, there is no exact figure of enforced disappearances in Colombia, possibly numbering in the thousands.

The ceremony to deliver the mortal remains of the Galarraga sisters ended with white and red roses in commemoration of all the missing women and men in Colombia. Their sister Nancy concluded the ritual with these words: “I searched for my sisters and expected to find them alive… Not how they are being returned to me, ten years later.”

2 September 2010