For the past 16 years, Teresita Gaviria has been searching for her son’s body and answers as to why he disappeared one afternoon when he was 15.
“For victims the main thing is to know the truth. For families of missing relatives it hurts so much that they prefer, more than financial compensation, to be told about what happened to each and every person who has disappeared, why they were taken away, why they were made to disappear, what they (armed groups) did to them, and tell us where they are buried,” Gaviria, who heads the Mothers of La Candelaria women's rights group, told local Caracol radio.
Every week, she and other women gather outside the cathedral in Colombia’s second city of Medellin to light candles and place photos of their husbands, children and relatives who have disappeared, been killed or kidnapped during Colombia's 50-year-war.
More than 30,000 people in Colombia have disappeared without a trace since 1977, according to government estimates.
Across Colombia there are 6.5 million war victims listed on the government’s official victims register. Of that number, nearly 85 percent are people who have been forcibly driven from their homes, along with victims of sexual violence and landmines and children enlisted into armed groups.
For decades, victims in a war between government troops, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, and fuelled by the cocaine trade, have been clamouring for justice and the truth.
FOCUS ON VICTIMS
Among Colombia’s war victims like Gaviria, hopes have been raised, as victims’ rights take centre stage at peace talks between the government and rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which started in Havana in November 2012.
In a recent joint declaration, both sides acknowledged their responsibility in human rights abuses, marking significant progress in the talks, just days ahead of Colombia’s presidential election.
Peace negotiators announced a 10-point framework for the next round of talks, which will focus on the right of victims to truth, justice and reparations, as well as the creation of a “conflict and victims’ commission” to determine what happened in the war.
“Without truth, there is no lasting peace in Colombia,” rebel negotiator and commander Ivan Marquez told reporters in Havana.
A group of war victims is expected to head to Havana in coming weeks to meet with peace negotiators, explain to both sides how they have suffered, and demand justice, while seeking guarantees that rights abuses will not happen again.
But right-wing presidential candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, a critic of the peace process who has threatened to halt the Havana talks, doubts FARC commanders will reveal the truth about abuses they have committed.
“The FARC are the main victimizers in Colombia, with all the murders and the terror they have committed in so many years of massacres,” Zuluaga told reporters this week.
“President Juan Manuel Santos didn’t demand that the FARC hand in their weapons, nor did he demand they hand over all the money they have made, the fortunes they have accumulated from drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom, so that victims can receive reparations.”
Rights group Amnesty International says the peace negotiators’ latest announcement contains no commitment to bring to justice those who displaced, tortured, killed, disappeared or raped millions of Colombians over the past five decades.
“Victims have a right to see justice served in ordinary civilian courts. It will be a challenge, but it is the only way to ensure a lasting and effective peace in Colombia,” Amnesty’s Colombia researcher Marcelo Pollack said in a statement.
“The sky-high levels of impunity have been one of the reasons why the conflict has endured for so long. The perpetrators know that they can simply get away with it.”
MONEY OR AN APOLOGY
President Santos says his government has made recognising and compensating war victims a priority, as he seeks a second term in office in a close runoff on June 15 against rival Zuluaga.
As part of the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law, the Santos government is offering up to $12,000 to victims and families of those who have died in the violence inflicted by all sides in the conflict. So far, 385,000 of the 6.5 million Colombians included on the government’s victims register have received some sort of compensation from the government under the law.
At least 40 percent of all claims filed by war victims are attributed to rights abuses, displacement and land stolen by the FARC, the government says.
Yet for many victims, an apology from the FARC and other armed groups is worth more than any financial compensation as they try to heal the wounds of war.
“First and foremost they (the FARC) should come out in public and ask for forgiveness, and secondly they should tell the truth because that’s what the majority of victims are waiting for,” Gaviria said.