A Reflection on ICTJ’s “Voices of Dignity”


Among the main reasons why ICTJ believes in the use of multimedia is its capacity to promote dialogue and reflection on issues of accountability, victims’ rights to redress, and recovery of civic trust in the aftermath of massive human rights violations. One such example is ICTJ’s documentary Voices of Dignity which portrays the lives of Yoladis and Petronila, two displaced Colombian women whose husbands were killed by paramilitaries. Despite the suffering and hardship inflicted on them and their families, Petronila and Yoladis lead an inspirational fight for acknowledgement and reparations.

The story of these two brave women inspired Wilson Herrera, professor of philosophy and researcher at the Universidad del Rosario in Colombia, to reflect on the role of victims in a democratic society, and on the importance of empowering them as agents of change and rights-holders, rather than relegating them to the status of permanent victims. His thoughts are deeply relevant at this historic moment when Colombia seeks to adopt a comprehensive transitional justice framework as part of a possible peace agreement to end 50 years of conflict, but also for the debates taking place in all societies dealing with legacies of systemic violence.

El Salado and a Public Policy on Memory: A Reflection

By Wilson Herrera

In the documentary Voices of Dignity, Yoladis, a school teacher whose husband was killed by paramilitaries in El Salado, tells us: “For me, dignity is everything, everything, everything. To have my own home is to feel dignified. Yes, victims do not live in such bad conditions as everyone thinks, but we don’t live that well either. If the government would look at us differently, we could live better. That for me is dignity.” Later, she says: “Money is not reparations, [money] is not going to give us our loved ones back, but it is going to help us give our children an education.” This moving testimony brings to mind three insights that I would like to share with you.

The first insight has to do with the efforts made by Yoladis and Petronila, the other protagonist in the documentary, to rebuild their lives and their determination to see that their children do so as well.

According to several studies on trauma, one of the most serious risks faced in violent conflicts, like Colombia’s, is victimization, and specifically, that victims cling so tightly to the past, remembering what was unjustly taken from them, that they become incapable of seeing themselves as agents – or people capable of finding new ways to live that give meaning to their existence.

In recent years, we frequently hear in the media that the voices of victims must be heard. This plea translates into an attempt to formulate a public policy on memory in favor of victims. A policy on memory should avoid becoming a mere institutional form of pity, of false compassion; on the contrary, it should aim to recover the moral and political agency of those who have suffered from violence and humiliation.

In my opinion, this implies creating an enabling environment that allows both victims and society to recognize victims as rights-holders; that victims and society accept that their petitions are just and that they must be addressed urgently and in a timely manner. In other words, it is crucial that victims’ demands are not perceived by them or others as acts of charity, but as entitlements, which we, as citizens, are obliged to address.

This brings me to a second insight. Yoladis says that while money will not redress her loss, it would help her educate her children. The notion of change, of transformation, is inherent in education.

Education is certainly a formidable instrument for keeping unhelpful traditions alive and instilling prejudices, but it can also contribute to showing us different ways to perceive and act.

A policy on memory is inseparable from civic education processes, without which it would be reduced to mere discourse with good intentions, a simple balm to our conscience.

In a context like ours, it is helpful to understand that civic education with democratic aims is a collective effort to ensure the independence and mutual solidarity of future generations. In relation to victims, this entails two tasks:

  • Giving our young people the cognitive and emotional capacities to understand, from the depths of their being, the injustices and the suffering of the victims, so that they are willing to fight to ensure that the conditions that made past abuses possible are not repeated.

  • A second task is what Petronila and Yoladis show us and have achieved with great effort: their capacity to fight to get ahead. The state and society must provide victims with the capacity to rebuild their lives and become agents that not only assert their rights, but are determined to build respectful forms of society, in solidarity with others.

My last insight has to do with democracy. John Dewey, one of the most emblematic philosophers of American pragmatism and one of the most influential theorists on education in the twentieth century, said that democracy, above all, is a way of life.

Our aversion to politics has led us to believe that democracy is limited to a series of rules about how citizens elect other people to act on their behalf. This way of understanding democracy has allowed political affairs, which concerns us all, to be appropriated by opportunistic politicians and, in particular, by charismatic leaders with paternalistic attitudes who wish to impose on us their intolerant perceptions of how to conduct our affairs.

In contrast, Dewey believes that democracy is a virtue that must be nurtured, consisting of the capacity to listen to others, receive and give advice, change your mind when others make a stronger case, and, above all, to always assume that public affairs concern us all, that they should not be left in the hands of those who falsely believe they have all the answers and insights into the future.

In terms of victims, democracy perceived as a virtue includes the idea that it is everyone’s responsibility to care for those who suffer, regardless of their condition, because if not, democracy would be exclusive, in other words, it wouldn’t be a democracy. For, is not democracy the notion that community life is something that belongs to everyone and is for everyone?

Finally, the day Colombians understand that democracy is a way of life will be the day when Petronila’s hiding her condition as a displaced person will be but a nightmare of the past, and we as a society will be ashamed that she once had to say: “I do not say that I am a displaced person, because if you say that you are displaced, then you are a guerrilla, or a paramilitary, and people look at you suspiciously.”

PHOTO: Petronila (left) and Yoladis in Las Malvinas, Barranquilla, Colombia, during the recording of the documentary Voices of Dignity. Camilo Aldana Sanín for ICTJ.