Reconstructing Memory in El Atrato, Colombia
Anselmus Baru, CMF
Claretian Missionary, Province Colombia Venezuela
Last April 9, the Saturday before Palm Sunday, a group of people filled the church Nuestra Señora del Carmen (Riosucio, Bajo Atrato), to commemorate their loved ones who disappeared in the midst of the conflict and the ravages of war in Chocó. It was an act of resistance and memory organized by the Claretian missionaries, the community, the Asociación Canto a Nuestros Ancestros (initiative of the Proclade ColVen), the Unidad de Búsqueda de Desaparecidos and other ethnic territorial organizations.
Since 2019, the missionary team of the parish, led by Brother Marcial Gamboa Valencia (CMF) together with the team of the Proclade ColVen of Bajo Atrato, has given space and impetus to this initiative as a pastoral and organizational response to the situation. The trauma of many people and families continues to be palpable in the face of the reality of the forced disappearance of their loved ones. This initiative is not a temporary one. It responds to the organizational, humanitarian, and psychosocial accompaniment processes of the communities of the Lower and Middle Atrato region of Chocó.
The work has not been complex. Fear as an emotion that warns of danger and requires personal and collective care continues to permeate the voices and silences of the victims, but it vindicates the peaceful and community struggle against oblivion. According to information gathered from the inhabitants themselves, as of April 9, 2022, the number of missing persons between Riosucio and Curbaradó is around 180 people. However, in the data recorded in the Cartography of Enforced Disappearances in Colombia by Human Rights, there are at least 554 people reported missing between the two municipalities of Bajo Atrato.
Around the recovery of the memory of mourning, at the beginning of the year 2020, in the framework of the commemoration of the XXXIII Week for Peace, the Claretians and several members of families collected photos of the people reported missing, printed them on banners and hung them on the door of the church, as an affirmative action of peace through memory and resistance. This strategy, loaded with symbols, testimonies and experiences, as a way to overcome pessimism and unite in the remembrance of loved ones, wanted and wants to contribute to the visibility before society, the debt that all those involved have, especially the Colombian State, with the search and return of the disappeared, the truth, reparation, non-repetition of these acts against humanity.
A year later, in 2021, together with the National Center of Historical Memory (CNMH) and the Unit for the Search of Disappeared Persons, along with the Claretian missionaries and the Proclade ColVen, they generated a collective exercise that consisted of families and friends of the disappeared telling, writing and framing a portrait of the disappeared person. It is a way to create spaces for families, communities, and organizations to talk, recognize themselves and revive the memory of dreams, resistance, and resilience bequeathed by their disappeared, but also of those who continue to stand up for the search, truth, and reconciliation. This work brought together different families and their narratives, which were collected in 30 notebooks, and resulted in a collective product entitled “Rostros que caminan” (Faces that walk) .
This exercise makes it possible and promotes the construction of memory, the ‘memory of mourning’, which, in the words of Francisco Ortega, mourning and melancholy, are dialectical modes through which we recognize the constitutive loss of every subject. Moreover, melancholy and mourning propose a new relationship with what is lost, “they [thus] generate a politics of mourning that can be active rather than nostalgic, abundant rather than lacking, social rather than solipsistic, militant rather than reactionary” (Ortega, 2004, 116).
The process of searching for missing remains is a long process. In many cases, the State’s initiatives do not meet the families’ expectations. They feel they are not making progress, despite the fact that the families of the victims have already detected and found clandestine cemeteries where the remains of many of their disappeared could be. In the end, to excavate is not only to dig the earth, but to unearth the truth, the life that was stolen from them, that was murdered; in the end to excavate and find the remains of their loved ones, is to continue the mourning, to cultivate resilience, to unmask those responsible, to demand them to tell the truth, to put them at the disposal of social justice, and to begin to repair, perhaps, the irreparable.
From memory to resistance
“Memory cannot be like a thorn in the flesh, but it can be
again into the open, throbbing wound,
no seed of hatred, no bondage, no gloomy nostalgia…
memory is like water; water that flows and
leaves its mark, while cleaning and
nourishes the earth so that new fruits may be born”.
In the midst of the reality of Chocó, especially in the town of Riosucio, looking at the faces of the missing families, one can perceive in the depths of their hearts the deep mourning for the loss of their loved one, the product of enforced disappearance.
These processes of accompaniment of the victims and the exercise of memory recovery through the collection of data and narratives of the victims’ families, allow us to see the importance of the relationship between the life of a group, the place where they are weaving their lives and their culture itself in relation to their missing relatives, since the place of memory is always related to space, time and the life of the person or group; or in the words of Maurice Halbwachs, “it is in a society where man normally acquires his memories. It is there that he evokes, recognizes and locates them” (Halbwachs, 2004, 8).
With this, memory, and in this sense, the memory of mourning, is one of the elements and tools of resistance against the culture of death, making use of nonviolence to recover justice. Thus then they become the non-violent civil resistance to defeat war without violence.
Anselmus Baru, CMF
AAVV, Voces de Memoria y dignidad, La dimensión simbólica para la reparación integral, Grupo de Trabajo Pro Reparación Integral, Colombia, 2006, 60 pp.
CAICEDO, L., MANRIQUE, D., MILLÁN, D. and others, Desplazamiento y retorno. Balance of a public policy. Book 2. Spirals of displacement. The return to Bojayá, Chocó. Texts from Here and Now. Latin American Institute of Alternative Legal Services. Bogotá, 2006, 102 p.
EL ESPECTADOR, Retrieved from: https://www.elespectador.com/colombia-20/jep-y-desaparecidos/los-libros-de-la-memoria-en-el-bajo-atrato-article/, date accessed, May 22, 2022.
EL TIEMPO, Retrieved from: https://www.eltiempo.com/justicia/paz-y-derechos-humanos/cuantos-desaparecidos-ha-dejado-el-conflicto-en-colombia-cifras-y-datos-637170, December 06, 2021, date accessed, May 12, 2022.
NATIONAL MEETING OF DISPLACED PERSONS (2nd: 2002, Bogota). Memorias del II Encuentro Nacional de Desplazados. Bogotá, Antropos, 2003, 125 p.
HALBWACHS, M. The Social Frames of Memory. Antrophos Editorial, Barcelona, 2004, 431 p.
ORTEGA, Francisco, A., La ética de la historia: Una Imposible Memoria de lo que Olvida, in Revista de Psicoanálisis, Desde el Jardín de Freud, Memoria, Olvido, Perdón, Venganza, Universidad Nacional, 119 p.
 Cf https://www.elespectador.com/colombia-20/jep-y-desaparecidos/los-libros-de-la-memoria-en-el-bajo-atrato-article/, date of access, May 22, 2022.
 AAVV, Voces de Memoria y dignidad, La dimensión simbólica para la reparación integral, Grupo de Trabajo Pro Reparación Integral, Colombia, 2006, p. 16.