“As long as impunity continues, the pain remains”; Rita Yvonne Tobón
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
PRENSA REINICIAR (Literally “Press Restart”, Publication of the Lawyers Collective)
April 27, 2015
Interview of Rita Yvonne Tobón, a survivor of the political genocide against the Patriotic Union Party. Her testimony against César Pérez García was the foundation for the guilty verdict in the case of the Segovia massacre.
Gancho: Rita Yvonne Tobón claims that it’s necessary to include those who are exiled in the Peace Process and to include the re-victimization that they have suffered while abroad.
R: Yesterday there was a meeting in Geneva between representatives of the United Nations and the exiles. Why was that meeting important?
RYT: The United Nations held a special hearing with members of the Constituent Assembly of exiles being pursued by the Colombian government and with important representatives of the United Nations Organization and its different committees, including the committee that deals with the subject of torture.
We presented several testimonies and among those was the very important one of asking that a special chapter be opened on the re-victimization in exile of victims of the Colombian conflict.
We say re-victimization because we are talking about persecution abroad by the Colombian government and we have evidence that that has happened in all of the Colombian administrations since Turbay Ayala.
At the personal level, ever since César Gaviria’s government, I have headed the list of people abroad who are dangerous to the security of the President, and that carries some risk.
The most critical point of this was the government of Alvaro Uribe Vélez, who created a safety study and who along with the DAS (Colombian FBI) claimed that there was an unguarded flank in Europe, and he ordered more military positions in diplomatic missions abroad. They harassed and took pictures of refugees abroad, and European agencies that were also being wiretapped filed complaints.
We asked that a special chapter be opened for us exiles because we consider that we are victims of psychological torture abroad by the Colombian government and we ask that the international regulation against genocide be broadened and genocide for political reasons be included in that regulation.
R: What role do exiles play or should they play in Colombia’s Peace Process?
RYT: We consider ourselves re-victimized because we have been unknown and invisible in the Peace Process in Havana. We exiles and political refugees are the memory of the armed conflict and as civilians we have paid a high price for our political convictions and our struggle for democracy.
We feel that we should have active participation because we have a lot to contribute to Peace because of our political experience and, through our academic training while in exile, we have had many years to reflect on peace. That makes us see the armed conflict differently from those in the country who are pondering it in the midst of the violence.
R: What is the impact on women of the socio-political violence? On their exercise of their social and political rights?
RYT: It is very difficult in Colombia because if we look at the history of all those people who defended human rights in Colombia, who fought for alternative systems of power, in the case of the men, they could always count on families and friends who supported them and did what was needed so that they could operate in optimum conditions. That hasn’t happened in the case of women. The attacks from the right and from those in power and armed groups, legal and illegal, have been directed at the functions that the men carry out, while in the case of the women, attacks are directed toward them as persons, at their gender identity, in the manner most vulgar, cruel, and inhuman.
That is to say that the violation of our rights and those of our friends and the people we love is three times worse than what has been directed at the men because it is directed at us as individuals. Even so, and if you look at women’s history, we have played an important role in the public administrations we have been a part of, because for us the objective of the mission we take on has always been important.
In the same way, we women in exile have been more serious about the change and we have used it to set a new goal: instead of destroying us, it makes us stronger and we have been more resilient. It has allowed us to move ahead with less difficulty than the men. I think we are the strong “gender” and history shows that.
R: How important are the memories of the survivors of the social-political violence for rebuilding the truth or the truths of what has happened in Colombia?
RYT: The victims’ memories are tremendously important as much for the history of the country as for the struggle against impunity and even more for building peace.
Without recognizing the memory of the victims, peace will be impossible. No country in conflict has been able to reconstruct itself without admitting the truth. Every attempt at peace has failed when it has denied its memories. Peace cannot be built by revising history. The victims’ truths have to be recognized for what they are in order to put an end to impunity and in order to establish peace; they must be part of history classes in primary, secondary, and university education, as part of the history of Colombia, because that is how Europe was reconstructed after two wars. Colombia will never have peace if we do not admit the truth of what happened.
R: Have you been able to overcome the pain of remembering the things that were done to the Patriotic Union in Colombia, against your countrymen and women, and against you, yourself?
RYT: As everybody realized when I testified in Court during the prosecutions related to the Segovia Massacre, I had not been able to mourn the massacre and I made my catharsis in public. Pain is inherent in people, independent of the harm done to them. I received professional help and I studied with European experts in order to understand the thought processes of those who commit genocides and how their victims can rebuild themselves.
In the case of the Segovia Massacre, which is only one part of the conflict, a chapter was closed but others remain: the harm that they did to us, and the destruction at a social and cultural level has hurt me, and the hurt continues because this keeps happening when people are trying to seize the riches in the land.
While impunity continues, the pain remains. It’s necessary for the government to admit that there was a political genocide and that the victims are victims of government terrorism.
There are many people who do not speak of the pain and it is necessary for the victims to have spaces where they can speak of their pain, so that they can rebuild. Today I am living in a democracy, I can protest against government policies without being persecuted and that is democracy. I believe it’s important to learn to live with the past that we were made to experience.
I have won! I beat those who wanted to destroy me; the ones in power, and I am very happy with the person and the woman that I am. The only thing I lack is for the genocide to be recognized, for reparation to the victims, but I don’t believe in comprehensive reparation, because there can be no amount of money that could repair all that they took from us because not everything is material in this life, but after that the victims will feel at peace and Colombia will also be able to reconstruct itself.
R: How do you cure being uprooted?
RYT: When they made me leave my country as the only way to save my life and the lives of my children, I had offers from labor unions to be their candidate in the election for the Governor of Antioquia, among other offers from other parties.
If they would have allowed me to live in my country, I would have been the first woman Governor in the country, because I had labor union support. I had a brilliant future in my country and they cut that off.
I was finishing my career. I had several personal businesses and, politically, if they had respected the decision of the Colombian people and the role that we represented as the Patriotic Union, Colombia would not be in the crisis that it is today. None of us, those chosen by the Patriotic Union, had participated in corruption or misuse of public funds. They made us out to be infamous, but none of us had ever stolen one peso from the public treasury.
In the first years after being uprooted it was very difficult because they had completely pulled us out by the roots. They forced us to abandon our business projects, our loved ones, we lost everything. I arrived with two children and a 60-kilo suitcase and it was very hard . . .because we had never thought to abandon our country until a high security official told me that there was an offer of 15 million for me, dead or alive.
It was the first time that in Colombia, from the safety and security of the government, they were launching a manhunt for a woman not yet 30 years old.
The first years were hard but I managed to have the strength of spirit that could not weaken, because if it had, the enemies of democracy would have won. I decided to put down roots and make the place where I was living my home and see to it that my children were happy.
I have lived more than half my life in exile and I have another people that are also my people, where I had roots and that doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize the other. I have other people who have had confidence in me and I have taken part in politics. I have been able to put up posters without the Army coming and tearing them down. I have had my return match politically and today I am a happy person. I have met all of the goals in my life and I feel very fortunate, but the pain for my people stays alive because of the ignominy in which they are living now.
R: For you, a Colombian woman forced into exile because of the violence, what do the words peace and reconciliation mean?
RYT: They should mean that for any citizen in a world democracy, democracy means participation of every sector in the country’s decisions that they are competent to make. Peace and reconciliation are synonyms for truth and justice, not just on paper, but in practice. They are the opposite of impunity and governmental and political intolerance.
They should be the result of thoughtful reflection by all, which brings with it admitting the harm done and the end of impunity. It is the guarantee that those who oppose the system can exercise their political and social rights without any kind of persecution or harassment or threats against their lives.
R. Is it time for pardon or when will it be time?
RYT: The notion of pardon is very ambiguous. I have taken part in commissions to verify acts of violence. I work a lot in the practice of armed conflict and pardon is what those who have perpetrated genocides must beg of their victims for their own well-being.
Forgive and forget, on the other hand, is the policy of those who are seeking impunity for those who have committed genocide. Under the rule of law, justice must be primary and nobody has the right to pressure a victim to forgive someone who has never repented of the crimes committed and the damage caused. No religious creed has the right to demand of its believers that they forgive the criminals who have destroyed their lives.