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Colombia war victims prepare to head to Havana peace talks to ask rebels behind rapes and killings: Why?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 17 Jul 2014 05:14 GMT
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A photograph of victim missing or killed in armed conflict in Colombia is displayed during a tribute at Bolivar Square in Bogota, on Oct. 18, 2012. REUTERS/John Vizcaino
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BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was the dead of night when an armed rebel fighter sneaked into a small farm along Colombia’s Pacific Coast and raped 11-year-old Yolanda Perea in a bed where she lay asleep with her siblings. 

But the violence didn’t end there.

“After the rape, I hid in a barn where my mother found me hours later covered with blood. I remember her carrying me in her arms back home, I was so weak. I told my mother what had happened and she went to speak to FARC commanders about what they had done to me,” Perea said, recalling the ordeal of 17 years ago.

“Weeks later, the man who had raped me and three other guerrillas came round to the house. They beat me up, and I miscarried the baby I didn’t even know I was expecting as a result of the rape. Then, they killed my mother. All she had done was defend me,” Perea told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.

Perea, now a single mother of two children, has been waiting since 1997 for justice and to know why she and her family were targeted by rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Her wait could soon be over. Perea is now poised to get her chance to confront top rebel commanders who have been engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government in Cuba, since November 2012 in a bid to end five decades of war.  

Perea is one of 15 people shortlisted by Colombia’s National Roundtable of Victims to represent war victims at the Havana peace talks.

HEARING VICTIMS, HEALING WOUNDS

A new round of talks, which began this week, are focused on how to honour and compensate victims and ensure that relatives of those who have disappeared, been killed or kidnapped during the conflict know what happened to their loved ones. 

Colombia's government and FARC rebels have both taken responsibility for their role in human rights abuses against civilians. 

Government figures show nearly a quarter of Colombia’s population of 46 million has suffered in some way as a result of the country’s 50-year-war between the leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and government armed forces.

The government’s official victims register lists 6.5 million people, nearly 85 percent of whom have been forcibly driven from their homes.

How peace negotiators deal with justice for victims like Perea will be key to government efforts to heal the wounds of war and secure lasting peace.

“President Santos has said that to reach peace, victims’ rights have to be at the heart of the peace process. It’s the first time in Colombia, or in any other peace process, that victims’ voices are at the centre of any peace talks,” said Paula Gaviria, who heads the government unit in charge of compensation for war victims.

“We have to expand and guarantee spaces where victims’ voices can be heard in Havana. How they will be heard and the mechanisms needed to do that are now being defined by peace negotiators in Havana,” Gaviria told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone, adding that a truth commission will be created following any eventual peace deal.

IF I SPEAK TO THE FARC…

Delegations representing victims from different regions and communities from across Colombia - including indigenous, Afro-Colombian and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities, landmine victims and members of the armed forces taken hostage by the FARC - are expected to travel to Cuba in the coming months, said Gaviria.

Peace negotiators are now deciding which war victims will get the opportunity to explain to both sides how they have suffered and the compensation they expect for their losses.

As a rape survivor, Perea has received $8,600 in compensation from the government, but like most victims, she cares most about finding answers.

“If I get to speak to the FARC, I want to know the truth - why they hurt me, why they killed my mother. No one deserves to go through what I did. We want an apology, recognition from the guerrillas that they have committed crimes against humanity, like rape. I want to hear them guarantee that this won’t happen again, that no more women and girls will suffer sexual violence,” said Perea, who heads a regional roundtable of victims and is a leading rights campaigner in the Afro-Colombian community.

“We’re demanding to know what happened to all those people who have disappeared, where the mass graves are, so that people can bury their loved ones and have a place to cry and remember them. We also want answers about the forced abortions they made women in their (FARC) ranks go through.”

(Editing by Alisa Tang: alisa.tang@thomsonreuters.com)

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