What happens when a state refuses to acknowledge the suffering of victims of mass atrocities? Or...
Where states commit widespread and systematic crimes against their citizens, or fail to seriously try to prevent them, they have a legal obligation to acknowledge and address the suffering of victims. Reparations, both symbolic and material, publicly affirm that victims are entitled to redress.
Through video and three photogalleries, ICTJ’s multimedia project Voices of Dignity tells the story of two courageous women from Colombia, and their struggle for acknowledgement and redress in a country where more than four million people have been affected by decades of civil war.
After paramilitaries raided their village and killed their husbands, Yoladis Zúñiga and Petronila Mendoza fled with their children to Baranquilla, a city on Colombia’s Atlantic coast. The film follows their struggle to provide for their families and deal with the impact of trauma on their lives, all the while working with other victims to make their voices heard by government.
“The state must recognize the responsibilities it has towards us,” says Petronila. “We aren’t here because we wanted to be, or because we wanted a change in our lives. We’re here because of what happened to us.”
In telling the story of Yoladis and Petronila, Voices of Dignity breaks the stereotype of women victims of conflict as passive actors in a transitioning society. Instead, it shows them as active participants and leaders; for their families and communities, they are not victims, but heroes.
In their own words, Yoladis and Petronila tell the harrowing story of their survival in the longest-running conflict in the western hemisphere. But for the two women, survival was only the first step to a new life. Their friendship was the start of a bigger community they lead today: a victims group that fights to achieve justice and reparations for the violations they have suffered. “I said, from now on, a step forward, yes, but never a step backwards,” Yoladis recalls.
With this multimedia project, ICTJ aims to reaffirm the fundamental rights of victims in Colombia and elsewhere: the rights to truth, acknowledgment, and redress.
As the government of Colombia enters new rounds of peace talks with leftist guerrillas Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), there has been much speculation on the prospects for sustainable peace. ICTJ’s research and comparative experience clearly shows that sustainable peace cannot be reached without ensuring justice, accountability, and victims’ rights.
In the words of Maria Camila Moreno, head of ICTJ’s Colombia Office, "Victims are not numbers. They are people with flesh and blood, with great dignity, who have a clear view of the steps that Colombia must take to respond to their right to compensation.”
Voices of Dignity is a testament to the rights of victims not only in Colombia, but in all countries transitioning from massive human rights abuses. The pain, suffering, and trauma a victim experiences will always be unique and the role that reparations will play in their life may be different. But the principle that victims must be respected and heard cannot be diminished, and their voices must not be lost in the rush to negotiate peace.
Take a closer look at Yoladis, Petronila and the neighborhood of Las Malvinas through these additional photo galleries:
|Yoladis Zúñiga is a community leader, an entrepreneur, a human rights activist, a cook, a university student, a victim of the Colombian conflict. But above all, she is a mother. At her home in Barranquilla she lives with her three sons, Carlos, Javier, and Brainer. Her daughter, Jennifer, lives nearby and takes care of four children of her own. “I don’t feel poor,”|
says Yoladis. “Because a poor person is someone who is spiritually dead, who has no initiative. I am a person who has a lot of aspirations.”
|Petronila Mendoza has a youthful, contagious laugh. But behind her mischievous smile there is a woman with very clear and serious ideas: “Above all, I want the truth,” she states with gravity. Since her husband was killed by the paramilitaries 11 years ago, Petronila has never stopped fighting to find out why he was killed. Half of her heart is still living in old photographs of happier times,|
but the other half is devoted to her family, especially her grandson, Luis, who she has been taking care of since he was 19 days old. “He is my son, my grandson, my companion, everything,” she says.
|Las Malvinas is a female name, and it couldn’t be more appropriate for the poorest neighborhood of Barranquilla. With so many men taken or killed by the conflict, women play a vital role in this community, in which many are victims of displacement: they take care of their families, their houses, and each other. A strong sense of big family transpires in these unpaved, colorful|
streets. Though their suffering may be great, nothing can shake their joyful outlook on life, or their determination for justice.