Conflicts & War

Ex-guerrillas aiding search for missing persons in Colombia

By Jorge Gil Angel

Mesetas, Colombia, Nov 22 (EFE).- Yaritza Paniagua, a former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel, was assigned five years ago to a commission tasked with searching for people who have gone missing during more than 50 years of internal armed conflict.

Having spent 20 years as a guerrilla, she is very familiar with the jungle and mountain areas that were controlled by the FARC and became the final resting places for some of the roughly 80,000 people who, according to the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH), were victims of forced disappearance.

One of those zones is the east-central department of Meta, where Paniagua, who was pardoned and released from prison after the signing of a peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC on Nov. 24, 2016, has lived since handing in her weapons.

Paniagua’s job involves processing paperwork and handling the missing-person requests she receives from the Search Unit for Persons Listed as Disappeared (UBPD) and organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as family members of slain guerrillas who were reluctant to report those deaths to the authorities.

“There were many people who disappeared during the war … But now that we’re doing this work we see that most of the disappeared people we’re searching for are our own comrades, since their families never could report (their deaths) anywhere,” the woman said.

The families fill out a form to solicit the search, after which the commission of ex-guerrillas Paniagua co-leads seeks out information from former rebels and rural small farmers.

Part of the commission’s work has been to reconstruct “big events,” such as clashes between the army and the FARC in which some people may have gone missing. Although those clashes occurred many years ago, the memory of them remains vivid.

“There are cases where 20 died in a bombing, and the army carried away (the bodies) … but to this day we don’t know where they are,” said Paniagua, who lost a brother in one of those incidents.

The commission’s work involves conducting a fact-finding mission and providing information about the possible location of missing bodies; the UBPD or ICRC gathers up the corpses.

For Rosa Rodriguez, a 56-year-old woman who lived for many years in a rural part of Vista Hermosa, a municipality in Meta, the wounds that the armed conflict brought to her life still run deep.

Her husband was killed by paramilitary groups and her son later was recruited by the FARC and may have died in an army bombing raid in November 2006 in La Cooperativa (Vista Hermosa), although she holds out hope that he is still alive and is part of an association in Villavicencio, Meta’s capital, that helps search for missing persons.

“If they tell me, ‘come, we found your son’s remains,’ then you calm down and say ‘I found him.’ You’re at peace, because the truth is I’m not at peace because I have the uncertainty of whether he’s alive or dead,” Rodriguez told Efe.

Paniagua says her work has been complicated by rising violence in some areas of Colombia yet also has borne fruit, noting that a body found in San Juanito (Meta) may be that of an individual who was kidnapped by the FARC 21 years ago near Bogota.

She said her new role also has made her reflect on the impact of forced disappearances in Colombia.

“All of this humanizes you more and sensitizes you to this situation,” Paniagua said. EFE


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