Conflicts & War

Pain of Colombia’s Bojaya massacre still lingers on 20th anniversary

By Ricardo Maldonado Rozo

Bojaya, Colombia, May 2 (EFE).- Survivors and family members of the victims of a 2002 church bombing in this northern municipality paid a visit Monday to the ruins of that temple, a commemorative activity to mark one of the deadliest incidents of Colombia’s armed conflict and a tragedy whose wounds remain unhealed.

On that fateful May 2 two decades ago, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas launched “pipetas,” or cylinder bombs, during combat with United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries.

One of those bombs landed inside the church, where much of the population of Bellavista – a town in the Bojaya municipality – had taken refuge.

The number of fatalities was never precisely determined, but estimates range from between 79 and 119. Dozens of other people were injured.

According to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a court established as part of the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC, more than 100 people were killed in the Bojaya massacre, 70 were wounded and at least 1,700 people were forcibly displaced from that territory following the attacks.

To commemorate the tragedy, a procession set off on Monday from Bellavista Nuevo, a town built on the banks of the Atrato River after the massacre to serve as Bojaya’s new municipal seat, to the ruins of the church in Bellavista Viejo.

During the roughly 10-minute trip by boat along the Atrato (there are no roads in the area), the survivors and victims’ family members, accompanied by indigenous people, authorities, diplomats and representatives of international organizations, carried the crucifix – “Cristo Mutilado” – that was on the altar when the bomb landed and which has become a symbol of the massacre.

“I lost my father and my little brother, some cousins. I lost a lot of relatives. For me, it’s very hard and painful to come here because I become very nostalgic. I get really sad coming here because there are a lot of memories,” Faustino Flores Palacios, who was 12 when the massacre occurred, told Efe with tears in his eyes.

Now 32, he said the loss of close family changed his life and also lamented the poverty and neglect that remains the norm for inhabitants of Bojaya and much of the jungle-covered department of Choco.

“Two years ago, I also lost my mother,” he added. “She got cancer. We weren’t able to treat the disease and she died. It’s really very painful. It makes me very said.”

Even today, violence remains a part of everyday life in towns and hamlets along the banks of the Atrato, where inhabitants say an AUC successor group – the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) – has imposed its will through force.

The AGC control much of Choco, although National Liberation Army (ELN) leftist guerrillas hold sway in some areas of that department.

Flores said that although authorities built a new town with a park and library for local residents after the massacre, Bellavista Nuevo still has no hospital, public services are unreliable and violence remains a pressing concern.

To draw attention to these problems, the mostly white-clad Bojaya inhabitants taking part in Monday’s procession carried white balloons and lighted candles to press demands for peace in their communities and greater government attention to their needs.

“The victims haven’t forgotten their dead and are demanding truth, reconciliation and peace,” the Truth Commission, which like the JEP is part of the transitional justice and reconciliation system established by Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement, said on social media.

That commission and the JEP were co-organizers of Monday’s activities commemorating the Bojaya massacre.

After the procession arrived in Bellavista Viejo, the archbishop of the southwestern Colombian city of Cali, Dario de Jesus Monsalve, celebrated a Mass in which women sang alabaos, traditional funeral hymns of Afro-Colombian communities in that nation’s Pacific region.

The commemorations will continue throughout the day on Monday and include a colloquium titled “Bojaya and Choco commemorating 20 years amid war and neglect.” EFE


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