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‘You Have to Carry On’: The Women Searching for Colombia’s Disappeared

According to estimates, more than 60,000 Colombians were forcibly disappeared during the decadeslong conflict with FARC, the majority of them men. We meet the women still searching for them, from their wives and mothers to forensic doctors and human rights experts.

Written by Laura Dixon Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Eulalia Luango Rodriguez lost two sons, her husband and her brother during Colombia’s armed conflict. Laura Dixon

VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia – Eulalia Luango Rodriguez sits on a plastic chair in a concrete community building in the Colombian plains city of Villavicencio, three hours’ drive from Bogota. She clutches a small plastic bag containing the photographs of everyone who has been taken from her as a result of the war: two sons, her husband and her brother.

Her eldest son Wilver disappeared in 2008, when he was 14, after he contravened the orders of the local guerrilla rebels by selling a bottle of Coke and some eggs to army soldiers. Later that same year, her husband walked out of the house to go to a family party – but he never arrived at the party, and he never came home.

Rodriguez spent years searching for them, as well as her younger son and her brother, who disappeared from the farm they were working on within months of each other, in 2011. The worst part, she says, was not knowing what had happened, or if they were alive or dead.

Places like Villavicencio are home to countless families whose loved ones disappeared during Colombia’s 52-year armed conflict with the left-wing FARC guerrilla group. The building in which Rodriguez sits often serves as a meeting point for a women’s support group where members can give each other advice or just listen to each other’s stories.

According to statistics from the national victims register, some 88 percent of the victims of forced disappearance were men. And the majority of those searching for the missing are the women who were left behind, says Paula Gaviria, an adviser to the president on human rights – wives whose husbands disappeared or mothers whose sons went missing.

“This is like a type of torture for these families,” Gaviria says. “They say that they saw their relative leave the house in the morning or at night and they were never able to give them a last goodbye.”

During the conflict, people were reportedly disappeared by the guerrilla, rogue army soldiers and right-wing paramilitaries. A peace deal was signed with the FARC last year in which the guerrilla group promised to hand over what information it has to help locate the missing. That will not solve every case, but many hope that the information will enable some of the families to finally find out what happened to their loved ones.

Deducing a total number of victims in the conflict is difficult. There are currently several different official registries. One, tallied by the government’s national victims unit, counts 46,636 people as being forcibly disappeared, while another study by the National Centre for Historical Memory (abbreviated to CNMH in Spanish) puts the figure at 60,630.

“We still don’t know if there’s more [than we have recorded],” says Gaviria, who will play a lead role in the search for the disappeared in the coming years, setting up a new organization that will try get to the bottom of how many people are missing by collating information held by different agencies and by bodies like the CNMH.

“It could take a long time for the state to find all the disappeared,” she adds. “Finding people alive is the goal of the families, but then [if not], to find the bodies. At the very least, if we can’t do that, we need information to give the victims’ families. To be able to say we did what we could.”

Looking for Clues

In the government forensics laboratory in Bogota, Dr. Esperanza Jimenez is trying to identify some of the missing by matching their DNA with that of family members who are looking for them.

Today, she is supervising a member of her team as they try to extract a sample from a bone segment. In the laboratory, there is a constant whirring as the centrifuge machine that separates the DNA operates in the background.

Dr. Esperanza Jimenez, who runs the genetics lab in Bogota, examines one of the DNA profiles extracted from one of the skeletons. When trying to identify disappeared people, the lab tries to compare the sample with DNA provided by a family member. (Laura Dixon)

When the remains arrive here at Medicina Legal, they are photographed and washed, before being examined by a team of experts. They will try and identify any fractures the person might have had in their youth, which family members may remember. They also try to establish the person’s sex, height, what teeth they were missing or what fillings they had, as well as how they died. Most of those examined by the missing persons unit died from bullet wounds; others from blunt trauma or dismemberment. Sometimes, that means there is only one bone to return to the family.

After initial examinations, the samples are sent to Jimenez in the hope of finding a familial match. With bodies that may have been buried for 10, 20, even 30 years, the job is not always easy. Many have deteriorated, and trying to establish someone’s identity and how they died may take months, if not years.

“We are not able to give people an absolute, to say ‘This is your daughter,’” says Jimenez. “We can’t talk about certainty, but can say ‘We have enough scientific information to believe this person is X.’”

The skeleton of an unidentified person at the Medicina Legal forensics laboratory in Bogota. The lab is home to a specific unit dealing with the disappeared. (Laura Dixon)

The Unmarked Graves

Colombia’s cemeteries are believed to be home to thousands of unmarked graves, with the International Committee of the Red Cross recently reporting that there are in the region of 23,000 unidentified bodies in cemeteries around the country.

“All the non-identified have a story,” says Pablo Cala from the Orlando Fals Borda collective, which helps families like Eulalia Rodriguez’s. “Disappearance is a crime that hurts not only the families, but that should hurt any human being.”

The walls of his high-rise office in downtown Bogota are covered with posters and photographs of the missing. He pulls out a marker pen and starts to draw directly on the glass of the table in front of him. In cemeteries in places like Villavicencio, La Macarena or San Jose del Guaviare, his organization believes there are a number of unmarked graves of people that were disappeared during the conflict.

Between 2010 and 2015, he says, 200 families of people buried as “no names” were found in cemeteries by the Fiscalia, the prosecution service that deals with exhumations.

Many of the bodies currently in the vaults of Medicina Legal were found after the 2005 demobilization process with the right-wing paramilitaries, in which they handed over information about burial sites.

When the exhumations are carried out, Cala’s collective makes sure the families are invited, and if a body is found, they help them deal with the emotional repercussions. It can be devastating, he says, but it also offers closure.

The clothes and personal possessions of one of the victims. Often family members use these to identify their missing loved ones. A magazine is produced regularly cataloguing the details of the missing. (Laura Dixon)

Carrying On

Back in Villavicencio, Eulalia Rodriguez lays out the photos of her lost family on the desk in front of her, as the thunder from a rainstorm cracks in the distance.

“You never expect to learn they are dead,” she says. “You always have hope that they will find them alive. People say ‘don’t hope’ – but as family, you do whatever you can. Carry on, carry on, the only thing my doctor tells me is you have to carry on.”

After years of hunting, her search for her youngest son, Robinson, ended when she was invited by the Fiscalia to a cemetery in nearby Granada where he had been buried as a “no nombre” (“no name”). Investigators had managed to match his missing person’s profile to the details taken from the body at death. As she tells her story, Rodriguez only cries once, when she shows me photographs given to her by the authorities. They show her son just after he died, laid out flat in long grass. In the photograph, there is a case number beside him; his trousers are disheveled; his eyes open.

Recently, she heard from another investigator who believes she has found Rodriguez’s eldest son Wilver in a cemetery a day’s drive away. She doesn’t know when the body will be exhumed or when they will be able to confirm that it is him, but one thing she does know is that she wants to be there.

“It will hurt, but I want to be there,” she says.

She still does not understand what happened to the men in her family. She was told that both her sons were killed and buried as enemy combatants – that they had joined the ranks of the FARC – but she does not believe it. When they went missing at ages 14 and 15, they were too young to get involved in the war, she says. She was also told her husband was part of the FARC, although she again denies that could have been the case. About her brother, she knows nothing.

Whatever the truth of what happened to them, for now she wants to know where they are and, if they are dead, to be given their bodies. “For us to have the body? The struggle is over,” she says.

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