Memory Reconstructs Society and Reestablishes Rights


In a simple house made of wood and straw and smelling of earth, women, girls, and the occasional man narrate, sometimes laughing and other times crying, the stories of how their life used to be before being forcibly displaced to San Juan Nepomuceno, a small village in the Montes de María region in northern Colombia.

This scene takes place in a “school of memory narrators” created by the Colectivo de Comunicaciones de los Montes de María (Communications Collective of Montes de María).

The organization teaches radio and video production as a means through which communities victimized by the violence of illegal armed groups in Colombia can share their stories, keeping the memory of their experiences alive.

This school is part of the “traveling museum of memory,” a collective memory project created a year ago. “The process of creating a collective memory is intended to repair the social fabric that was destroyed by the conflict and to reestablish the trust in people, words, and institutions,” says Patricia Iriarte, coordinator of the museum. “Through our work we hope to repair the ties that were broken.”

The schools are the first phase of the museum project, outlining content for the museum and preparing materials for expositions and activities. The goal driving their work is to generate ideas on how to honor the memories of those who died and to best generate an impact on policy and in the communities affected.

“Through restoring memory we try to empower people,” Iriarte concludes. “Memory is a right, and through the realization of that right we can strengthen our capacity to restore other rights these communities lost, not only as a vulnerable sector of the population but as citizens.”

Reclaiming rights in Granada

Image removed.    Many local memory initiatives like this one have emerged in Colombia from communities’ need to remember the victims and to reveal the magnitude of the atrocities they suffered. Each has had a similar impact: that by building a collective memory they lay the groundwork to reestablish the rule of law and build lasting peace.
Another such project is the Salón del Nunca Más (The Never Again Exhibition Hall), founded by Asovida of Granada, Antioquia, to commemorate the victims of killings, disappearances, and other atrocities in the region.

To make this project happen, *Asovida* and the community organized a campaign to influence the political platforms of candidates running in the mayoral election of 2007. Their efforts were overwhelmingly successful; all the candidates promised to commit a space to the project.

And today, Salón del Nunca Más is a reality. The exhibition includes photographs of 350 people killed by illegal armed groups, notebooks where victims’ family members can leave messages, guides to explain the history of the violence to visitors, and candlelit vigils and other events organized around the call that such violence must never be allowed to occur again.

The exhibition hall also serves to promote emotional healing for victims and family members, providing them with social agency. “Memory can reestablish rights,” says Gloria Elcy Ramírez, Asovida´s coordinator. “One of our major achievements is that many people who are victims of forced displacement or have lost family members can now lift their heads up and feel like citizens again. Our claim now is that we must be seen as people worthy of having rights.”

“We see that restoring memory creates an important opportunity through which youth understand that war is not the way forward, if we want to ensure the violence does not recur and if we want to achieve real, not imposed, reconciliation that is accompanied with rights,” Ramírez concludes.

Promoting citizen participation and democracy in Bogotá

While the traveling museum in Montes de María works to repair the torn social fabric and the Never Again Exhibition Hall promotes a reclaiming of rights by victims, Bicentenary Center for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation in Bogotá run by the local government encourages widespread citizen engagement in its activities.
This is reflected in the way the center is being built. Hundreds of Bogotans brought handfuls of earth and messages written on small slips of paper to be embedded in the walls of the Memorial por la Vida y los Derechos Humanos (Life and Human Rights Memorial), currently under construction in the capital of Colombia.
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The participation process also seeks to promote local peace-building initiatives initiated by civil society and victims organizations in the city. An advisory board comprised of academics, government representatives, grassroots leaders, students, researchers, and activists organizes consultative round tables to include the voices of citizens in such initiatives.

With these consultation processes, the center becomes not only a memorial to the victims but an initiative that promotes a culture of peace and respect for human rights among citizens in Colombia.