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FEATURE-Colombia's war orphans and victims tell of long road ahead

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 18 Mar 2013 02:18 PM
Author: Anastasia Moloney
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By Anastasia Moloney

GRANADA, Colombia (AlertNet) – Every Christmas for the last eight years, Claudia has written a letter to Jesus Christ asking for a wish. Every year, her wish is the same.

“I ask Jesus to bring back the remains of my brother so that my mother can stop crying,” said Claudia, sitting on the steps of a school in Granada, a town in Colombia’s northwestern Antioquia province.

She says her father and brother – who was 16 at the time – were dragged out of a local church by rebels from Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Her father’s body appeared later near a road. Her brother has not been seen since.

“My father was killed when I was six-and-a-half years old. He was an innocent man,” said Claudia, 16, holding back tears.

Most people from Granada, a small farming town lying in verdant coffee-growing hills a two hour-drive from Colombia’s second city, Medellin, have similar tragic stories about their relatives and friends.

Thirteen years ago, this close-knit community was at the epicentre of Colombia’s war, where right-wing paramilitary groups and FARC rebels fought over territorial control. Granada’s residents found themselves caught in the middle of the fighting. Around 200 children, like Claudia, lost either one or both parents in this town alone.

In one of the worst attacks in late 2000, over 300 FARC fighters invaded Granada during an 18-hour siege and placed a car bomb outside the town’s police station, killing 17 civilians.

By 2002, warring factions had forced 70 percent of Granada’s population of 20,000 inhabitants to flee their homes. Today, the windy road leading to Granada has abandoned homes choked with weeds on either side, testimony to the thousands of families who fled.

Colombia’s armed conflict, concentrated in the country’s southern provinces and border areas, goes on. But in Granada the fighting is largely over since a 2004 government military offensive pushed rebels into more remote hideouts. Granada is a symbol of the human cost of Colombia’s war, but today it is also known for its efforts to rebuild its broken community.

And as peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels continue in Havana to end nearly 50 years of war, Granada's recovery could serve as an example to other towns and villages across Colombia reeling from decades of violence.

In a house at the top of a steep hill in Granada, traumas of war are being healed. In a small courtyard, eight children are engrossed in mixing flour and sugar to make sweets. All have lost one or both parents to the violence.

“We were worried about our orphans and what happens to all their anger and hatred,” said Gloria Aristizabal, who set up a refuge seven years ago to offer the town’s 200 orphans a weekly place to play.

She and a small group of local volunteers aim to break cycles of violence so that Granada can live in lasting peace.

“If we don’t do something, the orphans will repeat violence and become the future bullies and killers and seek revenge for the deaths of their mothers, fathers and relatives,” said Aristizabal. “We call this a refuge of love. It’s God’s work. Our aim is to let children know that good and generous people do indeed exist. The goal is not just to survive the terror but to dream and create.”

Many children at some point dream of owning a gun and becoming a solider or policeman, she says. This is what 12-year-old David aspires to.

“I want to be a soldier to avenge the death of my father,” said David, matter-of-factly.

HEALING AND FORGIVENESS

Children face a difficult healing process, says Aristizabal, but she is hopeful that most of Granada’s orphans will reconcile the past.

Christian Gonzalez, 18, offers such hope. One night, when he was seven years old, his father and two brothers were killed by armed gunmen, he says. Another brother is missing.

“When I first joined the refuge, I was a tearaway. But after going to the refuge for six years, I was able to choose the right path,” said Gonzalez, who works as a stock-taker at the local mayor’s office.

“It’s hard to heal but I feel I’ve overcome this. I used to think about going after the killers. Forgiveness means getting over the hatred.”

Many of Granada’s residents have vowed not to forget the town’s tragic past. Next to a church in the town square is a small museum, known as the “Room of Never Again.” It serves as a memorial to Granada’s victims and is the first of its kind in Colombia.

On one wall are 182 photos of Granada’s dead and missing. Photos of boys, some as young as 12, a nun and the town’s mayor sit alongside pictures of community leaders and farmers. From 1998 to 2008, 400 people in Granada were killed by both warring factions and 128 locals went missing.

“Photos on the wall are hard to ignore. They give victims the visibility and dignity they deserve,” said Gloria Ramirez, who heads Granada’s victims' association and who helped set up the memorial in 2008.

“Our memory helps us not to repeat the violence and the pain we feel. The war has only left us sadness. But to value life you have to remember the bad memories,” she said.

On one side of the museum are piles of black notebooks. Each has a photo on the front cover of someone who was murdered and people can write messages inside.

In one book a daughter writes to her father: “Here I am Daddy. I miss you. Life is not the same without you. I look at the sky and think of you.”

Claudia cannot bring herself to write in the book dedicated to her father.

“Recently I tried writing in it for the first time but I just couldn’t. It’s still too painful,” she said.

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