By Lukasz Firla
“Even if they had cut him to a thousand pieces, they were not able to destroy his soul,” says doña Fany Coy with deep love and sadness that is piercing many hearts at the moment.
She makes a pause and looks at thirty-some guests who sit on red plastic chairs on the patio of a wooden farmhouse surrounded by fertile farmlands, ripe plantains, and thousands of trees in hundred shades of green covering steep hills to where the eye can see. 3 September 2023, marks 40 years since doña Fany’s husband Tulio Enrique Chimonja was taken by a group of armed men from this farm and never returned. Though doña Fany had pleaded with the men for the return of his body for burial in exchange for silence on her part about their crime, until today she doesn’t know how Tulio Enrique was murdered, or why.
For forty long years, she could not stop asking what the militants did to her husband and where his body was. “Despite my grief,” she continues, “I could not even stop to mourn, I had a family that I needed to take care of alone.”
In addition to caring for the many needs of her family and farm, doña Fany has dedicated her life to amplifying the voices and preserving the memory of families whose loved ones were murdered and forcibly disappeared. And she committed her life to the pursuit of justice. As they grew up, so did her children and their children, who are also present here today.
Year after year, in the days marking the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on 30 August and the anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Don Tulio Enrique Chimonja on 3 September, doña Fany with her family invites guests from near and far to commemorate the lives of her husband and others who were forcibly disappeared and assassinated in Palestina, their home in the mountains of southern Huila.
A specifically heinous form of violence
In Palestina, a rural municipality that is home to about 10,000 people, more than 32 people have been forcibly disappeared, and more than a hundred killed. “The 32 are those who we could identify,” says Omar, doña Fany’s son, “however the number is without doubt higher. As a result of the violence, many families have left the region, and the memory has left with them.”
On the scale of the country, both the paramilitary and guerilla groups, as well as the national army have extensively used the enforced disappearance as a specifically heinous tool of war. Hasta Encontrarlos (Until they are found) report states:
Enforced disappearance is perhaps one of the most atrocious repressive practices used by regimes and organizations to impose their control and power. It is a form of violence capable of producing terror, causing prolonged suffering, altering the lives of families for generations, and paralyzing entire communities and societies.
The data on the amount of documented direct victims of enforced disappearance in the context of the Colombian armed conflict vary depending on the institution between 80,703 (Observatory of Memory and Conflict) and 121,768 (Truth Commission). What is non-disputable is that Colombia has the highest number of forcibly disappeared persons in Latin America and the staggering majority (more than 85%) of the families of the disappeared keep on searching for what had happened to their loved ones.
Memory, reconciliation, and non-repetition
This year, our team of Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective was also invited to accompany the fortieth commemoration of Don Tulio’s enforced disappearance. Through their many years of engagement in peace and justice work, primarily through Communities Building Peace in Colombia (CONPAZCOL) and FOR Peace Presence, the family is well connected with many grassroots peace processes across the country.
Among the guests today are families who lost their loved ones, officials of state and institutions dedicated to memory and reparations, a representative of the Ministry of Interior, members of human rights and peace organizations, and social leaders from around Colombia. Some of those present needed two days to reach the farm, trips that included a day’s ride on a mule’s back, crossing rivers without bridges, and 20-hour-long bus rides. Some of the guests reached the farm cycling to celebrate life and connect more closely with the beauty of the land.
Among those who came this year are also eight signatories of peace, meaning former combatants of the FARC-EP guerilla group, who laid down their weapons in 2016 and joined the process of reconciliation with victims and survivors of the war. In addition to the Colombian military forces, FARC-EP in this region carries a lion’s share of responsibility for war crimes, such as enforced disappearances, massacres, and child recruitment. As part of the process, the former FARC-EP members have officially pleaded with doña Fany’s community for forgiveness for the crimes their ranks had committed. The families have granted it to them. Today, several of the top commanders from the region are among the guests commemorating the lost civilian lives.
Pictures and names of the disappeared hang on the trees and walls and an altar is built with flowers to celebrate the lives of those who are gone. During these two days, the farm becomes a sanctuary of memory, resistance, and peace.
On the second day, the commemoration takes place in the nearby mountains that form the territory of the Cueva de los Guacharos (Cave of the Guacharo birds), the first territory in Colombia to be recognized as a National Park. Family Chimonja Coy owns a plot of land here that they dedicated to preserving local biodiversity and reconciliation. The land’s name La Esperanza (Hope) manifests as more than 60 local community members and guests pray, dance, sing, cook, and share meals together.
The family inaugurates a memorial in the form of a wooden guacharo, a bird that gives life by spreading seeds. And each one of us who is present plants a tree in the memory of the missing community members. The signatories of peace then announced publicly that they would build long-distance hiking trails in the area with a vision of bringing people from outside to experience the beauty of the local nature and to learn of the suffering and resistance of local families.
Among the demands of families that are present is not only to learn the truth about what happened to their loved ones, for their memory to be kept alive, and for just reparations. Their call is that no other family suffers from such crimes ever again. In the lives and actions of many, the souls of Tulio Enrique Chimonja and all the disappeared continue to live on.