Reflections on the Historical Memory Report

August 5, 2013

I just returned from Colombia, where one of the highlights of my trip was accompanying the Historical Memory Center (HMC) team to the Casa de Nariño for the presentation of their report, Basta Ya! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad (Enough Already! Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity), to President Juan Manuel Santos on July 24, 2013.  Today’s post supplements my earlier blog from that morning and includes observations on the surrounding ceremonies, the content of the report, and the report’s significance.

The Ceremony 

I arrived at the Casa de Nariño entrance at 8:00 that Wednesday morning and was escorted to a large outdoor plaza made for presidential entertaining.  Hundreds of chairs had been assembled for the occasion. Each row of chairs sported small Colombian flags striped in red, blue, and yellow.  The weather was extraordinary–fast-moving splashes of white clouds tore across bright blue skies over clear views of the buildings of the presidential compound.  Around me, guests were trickling in and mingling amongst themselves.  I recognized many guests from Colombia’s political class, intellectual elites, the diplomatic community, donors, human rights and victims’ organizations, the public sector, and, of course, the press.  There was a mix of excitement, anticipation, and solemnity in the air.

Delivery of Basta Ya!, as well as the 20-plus accompanying volumes produced by the Historical Memory Group (and later the Historical Memory Center) fulfilled the mandate of the Justice and Peace law (Law 975) to document the origin and evolution of Colombia’s internal armed conflict, and marked the culmination of five years of research by a team of 21 talented public intellectuals, their researchers, and thousands of victims.

Each chair held a copy of the new 431-page tome.  Members of the crowd leafed through their books hungrily and cautiously, anxious to see if the Historical Memory team had managed to solve the mystery of why Colombia’s internal armed conflict had lasted for half a century and to read the recommendations for how amends might be made to the millions of conflict victims.  The scale and thoughtfulness of the event enhanced the importance of the report and reflected a public commitment to visibility for the victims of Colombia’s internal armed conflict.

By 10:15, more than 1,200 invited guests had been seated and the master of ceremonies announced that President Santos had arrived.  At least sixty journalists stood at the ready behind cameras and tripods stationed on high platforms at the back of the tent.  To a backdrop of drums and Andean pan pipes, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, his wife María Clemencia Rodríguez, and Gonzalo Sánchez, the Director of the Historical Memory Center, began to process down a long red carpet set out for the occasion.

President Santos then stepped up to the stage, where he greeted the dozens of victims who had come in from all across Colombia’s grief-stricken landscape.  The crowd rose to its feet applauding and the cameras went into high gear.  The first notes of the national anthem were intoned by a youth chorus assembled at the right front corner of the tent, and the ceremonies officially began.

Presentation of the Report


HMC Director Gonzalo Sánchez presents the report, Basta Ya!, to President Santos and the public. (Photo courtesy of Historical Memory Center)

Following the anthem and some brief introductions by the master of ceremonies, Gonzalo Sánchez stepped up to the podium.  In an eloquent and powerful speech, Dr. Sánchez noted that while the tome is a memorial to the hundreds of thousands of victims of Colombia’s conflict, it also aspires to be an “act of commitment to the transformation of Colombia’s future.”   Sánchez noted that the war has affected most of the Colombian territory, albeit in unequal ways, and that the majority of the victims–some 80%–have been civilians.   He  summarized briefly the general findings of the report, the differential responsibilities for the violence, and the importance of contextualizing the violence in order to address the “social and political environment [that] produced and nourished it”.

The Findings

The facts are chilling.  The report notes that between 1958-2012, armed actors produced at least 220,000 deaths.  (See “220.000 colombianos han muerto en 55 años de violence.“).  The violence has included:

    • 23,154 selective assassinations from 1981-2012 (40% of these were committed by private armies; 27% by unknown assailants; 16.8% by guerrillas; and more than 10% (2,300 killings) were carried out by public security forces (Fuerza Pública); the selective assassinations included at least 1,227 community leaders and 1,495 political party activists (not counting members of the Unión Patriótica, who will be the subject of a future HMC report);
    •  More than 6.6 million hectares of land usurped, causing the internal displacement of 4.7 million Colombians (from 1985 and 2012, 26 people were displaced every hour);
    • 27,023 kidnappings in 919 municipalities between 1970-2010,  mostly attributable to the FARC-EP;
    • 10,189 deaths or amputees from anti-personnel land mines;
    • Illicit recruitment of more than 6,400 children.

The report also tells of forced disappearances; sexual violence that has destroyed the lives of women, girls and their loved ones; and extrajudicial executions.  Sánchez underscored the variation that the HMC team found in the modalities of the different armed actors.  For example, the team found that paramilitary forces were more likely than other armed actors to kill their victims, while guerrillas were more likely to engage in kidnapping or to destroy property.

Sánchez observed that the plight of the victims has largely remained hidden due to a variety of factors, including the obfuscation strategies of the armed actors as well as a “normalization” of the violence and “social and institutional indifference.”  He noted that the violence of the conflict is inscribed in the fabric of “exclusion, impunity, dispossession and terror” that constitute daily practice in Colombia.

The antidote for the violence, Sánchez counseled, is the deepening of democracy and justice, and a political pedagogy that fosters greater appreciation for dissent, controversy, and difference.  Reconciliation cannot be built on hiding or denying the past.  The State and other armed actors must assume responsibility for their actions, and reconciliation must be built on the normative exercise and effective protection of human rights.  Sánchez then made a formal presentation of the report to President Santos and to the victims.

Voices of the Victims

Pastora Mira had been elected to speak on behalf of the victims who partnered with the Historical Memory Group to tell their stories.  In her brief remarks, she reminded the audience that victims are more than just statistics.  She underscored their resistance and dignity, and described the courage it sometimes took for victims to face their fears and share their stories.  Pastora Mira underscored the expectation that the recommendations of the HMC report would receive an appropriate response from the State, and that truth, justice, and reparations would be forthcoming. “Memory is a rung on the ladder to peace,” she noted.

The President Responds


“We must recognize that we have hit bottom, that the war became inhuman, and it dehumanized us,” noted President Santos. (Photo by Javier Casella, SIG).

An expectant hush came over the tent as President Santos stepped up to the podium.  In his speech, the President  acknowledged the presence of many of the Colombian political elite, and congratulated Senator Juan Fernando Cristo, primary author of the Law for Victims and Land Restitution, for his recent electoral victory in the Senate.  Santos saluted members of the judicial and legislative bodies, the public security forces, and the international community.  He spent a few minutes clarifying a brewing controversy based on the announcement days earlier that the tenure of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights would expire in October 2014.  He noted that a new administration would begin at that time, and the UN mandate would need to be revised, ideally for the UN to take on a more pro-active role in the third phase of the peace process, when it could contribute to the implementation of transitional justice measures to make truth, justice, and reparations more effective.

Finally,  President Santos began to address what he called the “uncomfortable truth” of the HMC report.  The testimonies of the victims, he noted, “pain us and touch our hearts, and that is how it should be.  No one should remain indifferent.”  Constructing the truth of what happened is everyone’s responsibility, he said, and the report provides the “first window toward the truth that we owe the victims in this country.”

President Santos then addressed another “uncomfortable truth,” namely, the acts of commission and omission of State organs in association with illegal armed actors.  He called for “recognizing the errors of the past” in order to build a more just and peaceful country.  He linked the report to the peace talks in Havana, noting that peace requires not only satisfying the needs of the victims, but also “addressing the challenges of rural development, the limits on political participation, [and] impunity”–items on the peace agenda in Havana.  Ending the conflict is the first step toward repairing the victims and ensuring that there will be no further victims, he stated.

Recommendations of the Report

Basta Ya! is not meant to be a definitive report on the conflict in Colombia.  It is meant to stimulate discussion and to open the door to more truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition.  As  such, it provides 10 pages of specific recommendations for public policies that will recognize the victims and their rights, attribute responsibilities for wrong-doing, and transform structures made for war into a new institutional architectural for peace.  The report recommends normative and institutional reforms that will build peace by strengthening human rights, the rule of law, and citizen participation.  It calls for measures that will address victims’ needs and effectively reintegrate the demobilized.  The report calls for judicial and educational reforms to address issues of intolerance, discrimination, and social exclusion, as well as special measures to review recent military reforms and purge the public sector of those who have been co-opted by illegal armed actors or engaged in the gross violation of human rights.

Significance of the Report

The report is already having an impact.  In seeking to contextualize the violence, the report suggests that change is possible and that war is not inevitable.  The leadership of President Santos and his willingness to learn from past errors and address the “uncomfortable truths” of the war sets the tone for this transformation and re-calibrates the political balance in favor of the victims.

The report has begun to clarify the extent of the individual and collective damages imposed by each of the armed actors, and has identified more clearly some of the roles that each have played in the national trauma.  Beyond the body counts, the report underscores the perverse and pervasive ways that the armed conflict has left its mark on the daily lives of so many Colombians, and the sometimes heroic efforts of a civilian population to resist the violence.  The report gives the victims new visibility and may help restore their dignity in the eyes of a society that has preferred to ignore or blame them for the violence they have experienced by virtue of their presence in a geography of conflict.

Likewise, the report helps to legitimize the call for a more direct role for the victims in the debates taking place in Havana.  For months, the victims have been asking to be at the table.  On July 20th, when he accepted the role as head of the Congress, Juan Fernando Cristo called for a delegation of victims to meet with FARC negotiators in Havana.  Likewise, the Minister of the Interior has called for a role for the victims in the peace talks.  With the release of Basta Ya!, these calls should gain greater traction.

If the heavy media coverage of the report is any indication, the report has already sparked a more grounded dialogue about the conflict and the responsibility of each of the parties for its perpetuation, as well as an examination of the roles not only of the armed actors, but also of Colombia’s leaders and society more broadly.  This kind of self-reflection and self-criticism is essential if change is to be sustained.

Finally, an August 1 interview with three FARC leaders in Havana by Hernando Calvo Ospina, republished this week on the FARC website, suggests a shift in the thinking of the guerrillas as well.  In the recent interview with Iván Márquez, Rodrigo Granda, and Pablo Catatumbo, the latter noted, “We have made mistakes, some serious indeed.” Catatumbo, long considered one of the FARC hardliners, continued, “I have no problem telling a woman, a family, ‘I am sorry for the pain we have produced with the death of your loved one.'”  Catatumbo notes the need for many other sectors to also take responsibility for their actions, but his newfound public appreciation for the FARC’s role in the conflict and his expressed willingness to ask forgiveness shows new signs of empathy, perhaps the ingredient most necessary to put Colombia on an irreversible path to peace.

About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
This entry was posted in Bogota, Civil Society, Colombia, ELN, FARC-EP, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas, History, Latin America, peace talks, President Santos, Spanish America, U.S. Institute of Peace, violence, Virginia Bouvier, Western Hemisphere and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Reflections on the Historical Memory Report

  1. Norma Inés Bernal Vélez. says:

    Gracias Ginny, por su compartir y su excelente síntesis. Que sigue ahora…


  2. Roxanne says:

    “Memory is a rung on the ladder to conflict” is a beautiful, poignant quote. Cheers to building the ladder, and reinforcing its rungs. Thank you for all you do, and for all your support to those working on conflict and memory issues in Colombia!


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