(Translated by Susan Tritten, a CSN volunteer translator)
Press Communiqué—Bogotá, July 10, 2009
“I am going to dispense with formality . . . and remember with you how we waited for the bridge to into Tibú to be repaired. . . the signs and graffiti announcing the arrival of the paramilitaries. . . to remember with you all our fear in the central plaza of Tibu when there wasn’t even the possibility of escaping to the street to catch a breath of air. . . to meet on the road boys and girls not yet 15 years old in the ELN squads . . . to remember with you the villages of empty houses, the paramilitary patrols before you get to La Gabarra. . . the paramilitary troops who weren’t just four mischievous kids hanging out on the corner, but a whole uniformed company, with encoded radios, with total control over the area, who could see everything, and with a helicopter at their disposal. In Rio de Oro I also remember thousands of displaced persons trying desperately to escape the violence, and that smell of death that permeated Catatumbo. . . you know about this from the human rights organizations, but I am remembering it for those who weren’t there; these are the things we must remember. This is the living memory of what happened to them, of the deaths the country didn’t want to recognize . . . it pains me greatly to return to this country to see that people here are still yearning for justice.” -Javier Hernandez, Assistant Representative of the Office of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, Opening Ceremony of the Campaign “Seeing Catatumbo.”
Catatumbo, in North Santander, has been one of the regions hardest hit by the recent social and political violence in Colombia. During the last ten years at least five thousand persons have been assassinated there and around forty thousand have been forcibly displaced from their land. Now, Colombia is waiting for justice and truth about these acts and those responsible for them and complete reparation for the outrages committed against human dignity.
Because of this and with the intention of honoring the efforts of the victims to recover their memory, to restore their dignity and to strengthen their demands for truth, justice and complete reparations for the victims, dozens of social and human rights organizations are promoting the campaign, “Seeing Catatumbo, Its Victims: A river of Memory and Dignity” because we believe that these ten years must not have passed in vain: ten years of massacres by paramilitary troops in Tibú and La Gabarra; ten years that marked the beginning of the greatest victimization that Catatumbo has ever endured.
For this purpose, on July ninth, in the National Library of Colombia, the campaign was launched at a press conference for national and international media in the morning and at a cultural event in the afternoon.
Several family members of the victims of the massacres attended this opening ceremony to protest the impunity that has protected those who have committed these crimes for ten years. Also at the ceremony, Gloria Flórez from the Minga Association, Yanette Bautista from the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation, Fernando Soler of the Association for the Memory and Dignity of the Victims of Catatumbo, and Zoraida Hernández of Sembrar Corporation, recounted briefly the dramatic moments that they lived before, during and after the massacres.
During the ceremony, Zoraida Hernández of Sembrar Corporation stated that several human rights organizations had sent a letter requesting that the Supreme Court study the possibility of disqualifying the slate proposed by President Alvaro Uribe for the office of Attorney General since organizations maintain that the three candidates are not impartial. One example is Camilo Osorio, who, through the incentive rules for Security Forces, encouraged assassinations in combat, giving us the poorly-worded phrase “false positives.”
At the cultural event on the evening of July ninth, guests such as the journalist Alfredo Molano; Javier Hernandez, Assistant Representative from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, Jan Noel Wettewald, Representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, and Guillermo Rivera, Representative to the House, among others, commented on the current situation in Catatumbo, paramilitary rearmament in that area, and the barbarity of the last ten years that still has not healed in the hearts of thousands of people in Catatumbo.
The campaign will continue from July to November of 2009, visiting month by month each region of Catatumbo, remembering those who died, but working as well for those who want to live, the people of northeastern Colombia, vigorous, happy and inured to war.
The next meeting will be in the town hall of Tibú on the eighteenth of July. The campaign, “Seeing Catatumbo,” will meet with the wonderful people of North Santander beginning at five in the morning with music as an opening for conversation on the “State of the city of Tibú, Impunity and Justice, Law of Victims and Reparation.”
That same day, there will be a tour of four significant sites of the massacre of July 17, 1999; in each site we will plant a tree and place a commemorative plaque. At the end of our procession, we will have an interdenominational prayer. During the pilgrimage, children from Tibú will carry a poster titled “The Catatumbo That We Love,” displaying their drawings depicting what they want for their region. This activity will be organized by local community childcare workers and the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare. At day’s end, a cultural event will conclude this commemoration in Tibú.
As Javier Hernández of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in the opening ceremonies, “but I remember it for those who were not there, these are the things we must remember, this is the living memory of what happened to them. . .” We will continue navigating this river of memory and dignity that will not be in vain, because the people of Catatumbo will continue fighting for a life free of violence, without forgetting, but with dignity.