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Rape survivors brace as Colombia's warlords prepare to leave jail

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 3 Jun 2014 15:30 GMT
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Maria Eugenia Urrutia, head of the Association of Afro-Colombian women for Peace (Afromupaz), crosses a symbolic bridge during a therapy session she runs for rape survivors in Bogota, in April 2014. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anastasia Moloney
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BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gentle songs and chants emanate from a community hall in a deprived neighourhood on the south side of Bogota. They are sounds usually heard at funerals held among Afro-Colombian communities to honour the dead.

Yet there is no funeral here, even though for the 30 women sitting in a circle on cushions and singing, it feels like there is one.

They have all suffered sexual violence or rape at the hands of warring factions in Colombia’s 50 year-war between the leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and government troops.

“This is a symbolic funeral for us where we meet to cry and say goodbye to our pain. It’s our way of sending away our grief that we must do to move on and heal,” said Maria Eugenia Urrutia, who runs the therapy sessions and heads the Association of Afro-Colombian Women for Peace (Afromupaz) rights group.

She was raped 16 years ago by a paramilitary fighter in her home as her 4-year-old daughter and former partner were forced to watch.

As rape survivors like Urrutia try to heal their wounds, some are bracing to face their attackers, who are getting ready to leave jail over the coming months after serving lenient sentences that were part of a controversial law.

From June through the end of the year, 400 paramilitary warlords are expected to be released on a case-by-case basis after serving a maximum of eight years in prison for human rights abuses - including massacres, torture and rape - in exchange for confessing their crimes.

The 2005 Justice and Peace Law laid the framework for a peace deal that led to 35,000 paramilitary fighters handing in their weapons and warlords sent to jail.

However, ahead of the imminent release, victims ask if paramilitary commanders have served enough time, as many Colombians continue to wait for justice and find out what happened to relatives who were murdered and went missing during the paramilitary reign of terror.

The same questions are being debated in Havana at ongoing peace talks between the government and the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

How much prison time FARC leaders should serve, if any, and if they can hold political office have also become election battleground issues ahead of the June 15 runoff vote between right-wing Oscar Ivan Zuluaga and incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos.

Colombia’s quest for reconciliation and lasting peace have prompted soul searching on how the country deals with and punishes those from all sides of the war who have committed human rights abuses.

WAR CRIME TRIALS

Paramilitary groups were initially created in the early 1980s by landowners and cattle ranchers to protect themselves from rebel attacks. By the mid-1990s, fuelled by drug money, they had transformed into powerful regional armies backed by local politicians.

Paramilitary warlords have confessed to more than 40,000 crimes so far, including 25,000 murders, and about 4,000 graves of missing people have been found following their confessions.

While 4,000 top and middle ranking paramilitary commanders have been imprisoned and are being prosecuted under the Justice and Peace Law – including the first batch of 400 soon to walk free – judges have passed fewer than 20 sentences for war crimes perpetrated by paramilitary warlords.  

“In fact, almost all of the accused will most likely be released after eight years without ever having gone to trial,” said the latest United Nations human rights report on Colombia.

Meanwhile, dozens of paramilitary commanders have been excluded from the Justice and Peace Law because they have not kept to their side of the bargain and are facing longer prison sentences, while some have been extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges.

With so few rulings handed down, many of the 460,000 victims of paramilitary groups feel they got away with their war crimes and ask if any peace deal with the FARC could lead to further impunity.

DRIVEN FROM LAND BY RAPE

Urrutia says she was a victim of paramilitary fighters under the command of the infamous warlord Rodrigo Tovar, whose nom de guerre was “Jorge 40”.

He has been charged with overseeing the forced displacement of 23,431 people, the disappearance of 6,249 people, 159 cases of alleged sexual violence and recruiting 64 child soldiers.

“One of the armed men sat and watched while the other one raped me,” said Urrutia, her voice cracking as she recalled the night when two paramilitary fighters pounded down the wooden door of her home in the jungle province of Choco.

“I told them: Do anything you want to me but don’t touch my daughter. After they left, I banged my head against the wall for what seemed like hours.”

They gave Urrutia 24 hours to leave her home. With her three children and carrying what belongings she could on her back, she arrived by canoe at the nearest town, where she received help from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“Rape was an order, an intentional practice they carried out to punish and humiliate women and destroy our communities. They used sexual violence as a way of driving women off their lands,” Urrutia said.

The extent of sexual violence in Colombia’s war is only just being unraveled and the taboo surrounding the crime broken.

“We can’t help ourselves if we remain silent. We have to get over our fear and encourage other women to come forward,” said Urrutia, who now travels in a bullet-proof car with two bodyguards provided by the government for her protection.

Women’s rights groups say the government is failing to punish perpetrators of sexual violence. Claudia Mejia - a lawyer who heads Sisma Woman, a leading rights group in Colombia – says 90 percent of conflict-related sex crimes have gone unsolved and unpunished.

“Sometimes the process involved in getting justice for survivors of sexual violence can be just as torturous as the rape itself,” Mejia said.

Victims of paramilitary groups also fear that they could be the target of reprisals when their perpetrators leave jail.

Thousands of former paramilitary fighters who demobilised have joined new drug gangs. Known as BACRIM, they hold sway in former paramilitary strongholds, and the government now regards them as Colombia's biggest security threat.

FACING AGGRESSORS

Urrutia and other women in her support group remain haunted but are determined to rebuild their lives, convening at this community hall over the next 14 weeks to share their experiences as they seek reconciliation and forgiveness.

Drawing on Afro-Colombian oral traditions, the women over the next few hours describe being raped and fleeing their homes in different parts of Colombia.

Tears roll down their faces. Some stare at the ground clasping their hands and shaking their heads.

“After these sessions, I feel the weight from my shoulders has been lifted a little. I find strength from being with other women who understand what I’ve been through,” said Francia Ibarguen, who co-founded Afromupaz.

As the meeting ends, the women clap and cheer as one by one they cross a symbolic bridge - slippery white and black poles placed across the floor - marking the end of a painful journey and the start of a more hopeful future.

“We can’t forget because the nightmares still continue when we go to bed and close our eyes, but we can forgive. You can start to forgive before you get an apology,” Urrutia said.

“We must prepare ourselves for the return of the paramilitaries. We have to begin a process of reconciliation with them, but first we have to find peace within ourselves, otherwise reconciliation is impossible. I’m willing to face my aggressor and talk face to face with him.”

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