Laura Lara, a former combatant of the extinct Colombian guerrilla of the FARC, is looking for four children, a husband and a brother who disappeared during the armed conflict. Thanks to the FARC’s Search Commission, he has been able to locate a daughter, while waiting for her to be exhumed. Finding the disappeared is a hope that was reborn with the 2016 Peace Accords, which are now five years old.
“Living with absence is dying in silence”, is the mantra repeated by Yaritza Paniagua. Forced disappearance is a crime against humanity, which according to data from the Truth Commission of Colombia, affects more than 100,000 people.
Yaritza is the director of the FARC component of the Commission for the Search of Disappeared in eastern Colombia. She carries out her work from the Mariana Páez Temporary Training and Reincorporation Space (ETCR), located in Mesetas, in the department of Meta, one of the most affected by the conflict. If Colombia adds 17% of victims, the Meta registers twice as much.
This Commission belongs to the Comunes party – the political formation of the extinct FARC – and collaborates with the Unit for the Search of Persons Given as Disappeared, which emerged after the 2016 peace accords between Colombia and the guerrillas, and is part of the Comprehensive System for the Paz, together with the Truth Commission and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.
More than 100 ex-combatants participate in different commissions, the same ones they occupied on the fronts when they were up in arms. They are those of the West, South, Coast and Santanderes, Antioquia and Eje Cafetero, which are grouped in a national commission, led by Mauricio Jaramillo.
Its function is to document cases of possible disappearances, both of ex-guerrillas and of all types of people in society, from civilians, to paramilitaries and the military. They then seek information with other demobilized ex-combatants who may have participated in operations in which the disappearances occurred.
“We do not say that everyone is going to meet, because it is very difficult, but unless the truth is found, a symbolic repair is made for the families and they can rest after so much time of pain,” explains Yaritza.
So far they have documented more than 800 victims, of which more than 100 have been located. This information has been handed over to the Unit for the Search for Missing Persons and to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) so that they can proceed with the exhumations.
For Yaritza, progress has been made: “Ex-combatants searching for those who have disappeared from the conflict is something unprecedented in the world,” although he regrets the lack of resources: his office is in his own home and the 35 documentary workers who collaborate cannot do the job full time. , but in their spare time.
Difficulties in finding missing persons in Colombia
After five years a pattern repeats: location is possible, but exhumation is often impossible. This is the case of Laura Lara, a former combatant who knows where a missing daughter is. However, the difficulty of the terrain prevents finding Leidy Yadira Santana, killed in combat. The passage of time and the orographic complexity of Colombia make it difficult to search for the disappeared.
The Commission is also unable to carry out its work due to the threats it receives from armed groups. In Meta, in addition to criminal and paramilitary groups, there are FARC guerrilla dissidents.
A group led by ‘Gentil Duarte’, who abandoned the peace process before the signing, and the Second Marquetalia, led by ‘Iván Márquez’, a deserter two years after the Peace Accords. These factions fight for territory and keep search parties out.
For Yaritza, all this converges in a problem that he has discovered in his reincorporation to civil life: the bureaucracy, its slowness and the complexity around an exhumation: “If it depended on me, we would have recovered several, we ourselves would go and deliver the bodies “.
Time is short. “Information is being lost, colleagues are being killed who knew where the disappeared are, people are getting scared and they no longer explain with the same ease what happened; because of the threats and because of the difficulties posed by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace” .
The guerrillas have also been victims of enforced disappearance
But Laura Lara is not only looking for Leidy, but also for three other children, her husband and her brother. They are families hit by an armed conflict of more than five decades.
The signing of the peace process, Yaritza and the Search Commission gave Laura the hope of finding them: “I will never again remain silent for fear of being killed,” she says.
The perpetrators impose the law of silence in the territories of Colombia in a control practice that seeks to avoid public attention in order to continue with illegal activities of extractivism and drug trafficking.
The guerrillas served as protection outside the law. With disarmament and reincorporation to civilian life, ex-combatants have been exposed and nearly 300 have been killed since the signing of the Peace Accords. For the Defensoría del Pueblo, the demobilized are “at high risk” in almost the entire country.
The commitment to peace finds hope in ex-combatants
But surrender is not an option for Yaritza, who continues to search for her missing brother. Thanks to his work, he may feel that he finds him: especially when he locates a person who has been reported missing.
“It is necessary to search for all the victims because their families are requiring it. They are suffering and the absence has killed them while alive,” says Yaritza.
He is 51 years old and 30 years old he spent in the ranks of the FARC, where he became a commander. There are many memories that he cannot rid himself of and that he concentrates in a personal diary. The bulk was written in jail, where he spent three years, until he was released during the peace process. She was arrested after a bombing in which her husband died: “Wherever you are, don’t forget me,” reads one of the letters she wrote to him.
Photos, texts to the love of his life, poems and songs. Yaritza is excited to open the diary, which she hopes to one day turn into a memoir.
After a lifetime in the jungle, the daily life of a house or a family feels strange. In the ETCR he finds fellowship and community with other veterans.
With the agreements between the State and the FARC, more than 13,000 guerrillas chose to demobilize. However, according to UN data, only a little more than half, 54%, have been able to benefit from collective and individual production plans. Despite the lack of opportunities, according to the Indepaz observatory, 95% are complying with the agreements.
Yaritza does not doubt it, a new life is worth it: “We were always aware that everything had to lead to a political process, the war would not continue, it has been too many years.”