Victims in Colombia: Putting a Face to the Numbers

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist; then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist….” The celebrated quote by German anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller remains frighteningly relevant today in some parts of the world, like Colombia.

Every 10th of December, when the world marks International Human Rights Day, groups of high school children in the southern German city of Ulm visit one of the first concentration camps for political opponents established by the Nazis, in 1933.

A total of 800 communists, social democrats and trade unionists, as well as three anti-Nazi-Catholic priests, were held at the relatively small Oberer Kuhberg concentration camp.

The camp, located on the premises of the fort of the same name, was closed in 1935 – according to Hitler’s regime, for budgetary reasons, but also because much larger concentration camps began to be established, for the industrial-scale detention and later extermination of political opponents and then Jews, homosexuals and gypsies or Roma people.

When Oberer Kuhberg was shut down, the prisoners were transferred to the Dachau concentration camp, near Munich.

What is the aim of bringing youngsters to the memorial site, where they are once again shown the well-known cruelty of the Nazis?

“Memory, guidance and perhaps also a motivation to guarantee that nothing like this can ever happen again,” Andreas Kopp, a ninth grade history teacher at St. Hildegard, a Franciscan girls high school in Ulm, tells IPS.

But apparently that lesson has not been learned everywhere.

The report “Breaking the Silence: In Search of Colombia’s Disappeared” was released Dec. 10 in Washington, D.C. by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) and the U.S. Office on Colombia (USOC).

“(T)he magnitude of the tragedy in Colombia may be even greater” than what happened in Argentina, where an estimated 30,000 people fell victim to forced disappearance during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship there, say the report’s authors, Lisa Haugaard and Kelly Nicholls.

“Little attention has been paid to disappearances in Colombia,” they say, in the context of the armed conflict involving the army, far-right paramilitary groups and left- wing guerrillas.

“This may be simply because the death toll from assassinations, massacres, criminal murders, and battlefield casualties – where there are bodies – is so high that disappearances have remained out of focus,” the authors add.

The Attorney General’s Office believes that between 60 and 65 percent of disappearances in conflict zones go unreported, mainly due to the lack of state infrastructure or fear of reprisals.

According to official figures cited by “Breaking the Silence”, more than 42,300 people have been forcibly disappeared since 1977, although the statistics and years of reference vary depending on the government agency.

The report adds “the full total remains unknown.”

“More than 1,130 new cases of forced disappearance have been officially registered in the last three years,” the report says. In other words, more than one a day on average.

At least one person disappeared in Colombia while this article was being written.

In Colombia, “Forced disappearance has been used as a tool to control communities and silence dissent by eliminating the leadership of social movements, community organisations, and political opposition, instilling fear in those left behind,” the report says.

The young German guide at the Oberer Kuhberg memorial site uses virtually the same words to describe the aims of the Adolf Hitler regime when it built the concentration camps.

The objective, she says, was to break down the will and the dignity of the prisoners.

Forced disappearance, in the words of Baltazar Garzón — the Spanish judge who became world-famous for trying to prosecute late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet — has described forced disappearance as “the humiliation of a human being to the very last.”

The victims of forced disappearance in Colombia include human rights defenders, trade unionists, blacks and indigenous people, and young rural men and teenage girls.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many people went missing after the security forces detained them.

But in late 2008, it came out that the military were no longer detaining and “disappearing” only government opponents, but also recruiting people at random – mainly young men from poor neighbourhoods – with false job offers. They were taken away and never seen again.

That is, until the bodies of some of them turned up in morgues far away from their homes, where they had been registered as guerrillas killed in combat.

These killings, known as “false positives,” formed part of a “body count” system that used incentives like weekend passes, cash bonuses, promotions and trips abroad to reward soldiers and officers for “results” in the country’s nearly five-decade civil war.

This year, the justice system has investigated more than 3,000 cases of “false positives.”

The leftist guerrillas also murder and “disappear” people. In addition, some cases of kidnapping and forced recruitment by the rebels are classified as forced disappearances, the study says.

But although the police, military and left-wing insurgents have all committed forced disappearances, the biggest culprits were the paramilitaries, the report says, adding that they “often destroyed the bodies of their victims, burning them or cutting them with chainsaws, burying the bodies in unmarked graves on ranches, riverbanks or the outskirts of cemeteries, or throwing them into the rivers.”

There have also been reports that paramilitaries built crematory ovens to burn, and thus “disappear,” the bodies of hundreds of victims in order to keep homicide rates from climbing in certain parts of the country.

“The highest incidence of forced disappearances occurred from 2000 to 2003, according to Colombian government statistics — the first four years of U.S.-funded Plan Colombia,” a counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy, the authors say in a press release.

The report includes a list of recommendations for the Colombian and U.S. governments, academia, the media and civil society.

Making the numbers meaningful

“Yes, the numbers of victims are extremely high,” but “in and of themselves they are incomprehensible, they don’t tell us anything,” Kopp tells IPS, at the Oberer Kuhberg memorial site.

“They only really hit us when we see the faces behind them, the individual stories, when we find out about the victims’ biographies,” he says. “When we see in front of us an image, then we can imagine someone’s life.

“Then we can comprehend what it means for a life to have been terminated. And what that means for the victims’s family,” he adds.

In the old concentration camp, where Kopp has brought his students, he leads me to an exhibit. “This is the way,” he says.

A map of Nazi Germany shows the locations of the numerous prisons and concentration camps. Next to the map are photos of the most prominent opposition leaders that Adolf Hitler’s regime held prisoner in Ulm, along with their biographical details.

On a computer screen, the visitor to the museum — which is grim, especially in the cold, grey winter — can enter a database to read about the lives of each of the prisoners held in the concentration camp.

“This way, we can see their faces; their lives take shape for us, we can grasp them. That is when we know what we have lost,” Kopp says.

Against a yellow, blue and red backdrop (the colours of the Colombian flag), the cover of “Breaking the Silence” shows small rectangles, in each of which two hands hold an identity card photo of men, women and children who were “disappeared” in the northwestern municipality of San Onofre and in La Hormiga and San Miguel in the south.

As the report explains, the cover art is from “Remember Me”, a project of Lutheran World Relief, created in collaboration with Colombian partners Fundación Manuel Cepeda Vargas, Agenda Caribe and Associación MINGA, that is being presented at venues throughout the United States.

 

Constanza Vieira

 

ULM, Germany, December 14, 2010 (IPS)

 

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