Colombia Commemorates its First National Victims’ Day


Colombia marked the country’s first National Day of Memory and Solidarity with the Victims April 9. For the millions who have suffered human rights violations in Colombia’s entrenched armed conflict, this was a day for their voices to be heard and their suffering to be acknowledged by the state; a nationwide call for accountability and reconciliation in a highly divided society.

The National Victims’ Day is part of a broader agenda set forth by the Victims’ Law passed last year to formally recognize and compensate victims of human rights abuse. For each person observing it, this day meant something unique, informed by the myriad of ways the conflict has affected daily life.

“Personally, I’ve been commemorating this day for 27 years, every Good Friday, because of everything my oldest son Luis Fernando suffered after he was detained and subjected to torture and all kinds of cruel treatment,” says Fabiola Lalinde who has been fighting for justice for over two decades. “Luis Fernando was executed on October 4, 1984 by a military patrol and deprived of his identity, converted into ‘Jacinto N.N.’.”*

For many, this day was a call for solidarity, an “appeal to the conscience of the common people, an appeal for civil society to commit to the millions of people who have suffered violence in Colombia,” according to the Group for Historical Memory of El Cesar.

For others, such as Claudia Girón of the Manuel Cepeda Foundation, it was less about solidarity than recognizing the responsibility the state has to acknowledge and redress these crimes.

“It is time we realized the problem isn’t just a question of victims and perpetrators while the state generously helps some victims and not others,” she says. “This is a day to acknowledge that they are the victims of the government’s denial of opposition, victims of thinking differently.”

To realize this, society as a whole must reject the practices committed by illegal groups and by state agents “such as the false positives, kidnapping, forced disappearances, torture, murder, the displacement of thousands of families from their lands, the persecution of those belonging to the opposition,” says Héctor Beltrán, father of one of the disappeared in the 1985 Palace of Justice siege, which left more than 100 people dead or missing.

It was a call for memorialization as well. “This is a day to recognize all the victims,” said Olga Lucía Gómez, director of País Libre (Free Country), an organization that works with cases of kidnapping. “In Colombia we still haven’t resolved different memories and acknowledged the different atrocities of the war. This would give more meaning to what we’ve lived through.”

National Victims’ Day was also a chance to critically examine the way the country has addressed harms caused to the victims and to society.

“Complicity and silence have eroded the fabric of society, deepened the historic distrust between different sectors of society and weakened consensus,” says María Camila Moreno, director of ICTJ’s Colombia Program. “Colombian democracy has been attacked by private interests, both legal and illegal ones, and in various regions the state has been co-opted to favor them. Only by unveiling and facing that reality can we get ourselves on track to rebuild trust between citizens and the state and among citizens themselves. This should be the strategic objective of the efforts being undertaken by the government within the framework of transitional justice.”

The efforts to rebuild this trust and achieve justice, through actions by both the state and by academic and social organizations, are the basis for realizing the purpose of this national day and for fulfilling the hope of victims like Héctor Beltrán: “That the youth of today find out what really happened, draw their own conclusions, and make decisions that will benefit our country in the long run, to ensure such horrible things don’t happen again and my grandchildren and great-grandchildren don’t live in constant fear.”

*Ms. Lalinde’s story is tragically not uncommon. Under a practice known as “false positives,” many young men have been executed and then disguised as guerrilla fighters killed in combat, buried in anonymous graves, reported under false names.

Leonel de Jesus carries the urn with the remains of his daughter, February 2011. Relatives of 29 victims received the remains of their loved ones, found in common graves thanks to information given by demobilized combatants of both the leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images