Bogota, Colombia – It was the early evening, just after sunset, when six gunmen wearing ski masks stormed a ranch home on the outskirts of Granada, Colombia and forced Carmenza Suarez de Cruz into a car, and drove her down a dirt road into the darkness.
It all happened so fast that her husband, kids, and her dozen or so guests – all enjoying a house party – stood by, helpless to do anything about it.
That was on July 24, 1996, and Carmenza Suarez de Cruz hasn’t been seen by her family ever since.
|Hundreds of FARC civilian hostages missing|
The gunmen were working for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and within seconds turned the 55-year-old wife and mother into another one of their civilian hostages.
The FARC demanded thousands of dollars for Carmenza’s release. The family were ranchers; they’re middle class, not rich, but nevertheless cobbled together the money, paid the FARC, and expected Carmenza to be released. But she wasn’t.
Months later, the FARC demanded more money. The family paid it, but again Carmenza was not released. Disillusioned, the family could no longer keep paying ransoms. Years have now passed, but the pain of the kidnapping hasn’t.
“Many people tell me, ‘Why are you still looking for her? The FARC probably killed her,'” Esmeralda, her daughter, told Al Jazeera. “And I look at them and I say, ‘It’s very easy for someone to say that when it isn’t your mother.’ The only way for someone to know how it feels is to live through it. It’s very difficult.”
In its almost 50 years of existence, the FARC has engaged in high-profile kidnappings of politicians, soldiers and police officials to be used as leverage in negotiations with the Colombian state. On Wednesday, a French journalist seized a month ago by the rebels was released amid a frenzied media blitz.
But the FARC’s kidnapping of civilians has often gained less attention. The ransoms extracted for civilian hostages served as a source of income to help fuel the group’s armed conflict against the government.
Under intense military bombardment since 2002, the FARC has increasingly shifted its focus to the lucrative drug trade. Earlier this year, the FARC announced they would no longer participate in kidnappings, and in early April it released the last 10 military and police hostages in its possession to worldwide media attention.
This was seen by many as a watershed moment in Colombia’s armed conflict. But the whereabouts of an unknown number of Colombians remains unsolved. Simply determining how many civilian hostages are in the hands of the FARC or other armed groups has proven problematic.
According to official data from the Colombian government, there are still 97 civilian hostages in the country. Pais Libre, a respected local NGO, counts the number at 405, while other research organisations claim an even higher number.
The discrepancy is due to the fact that some never report the kidnapping of a family member or loved one to authorities, out of fear that doing so could put their loved ones at more risk. Many civilian hostages are passed between various FARC divisions, or exchanged between other armed groups or criminal gangs. Simply determining how many civilians remain kidnapped is increasingly seen as key to advancing peace.
“We first need to do an inventory now of how many civilian hostages we have in Colombia,” Victor J Ricardo, a former Colombian diplomat, told Al Jazeera from his home in Bogota. “Are there 200, 400, 800 civilians still kidnapped? Right now all we have is an uncertain list. After that, we need to do a truth commission that can establish who is really kidnapped, who has been killed, and who is responsible.”
“The government has focussed on politicians and military hostages, and the civilians barely get any mention unless they are someone from a very influential family.”
– Esmeralda Cruz
And according to journalist Herbin Hoyos, who runs a radio programme that transmits messages from family members to captives in the jungles, there are another 107 police or military whose whereabouts are unknown, having either defected, been killed, or still being held in a civilian capacity.
“The release of the final 10 military and police hostages (in April) closed one chapter,” Hoyos told El Espectador newspaper. “But it opened another: The anonymous hostages. The people that have yet to return to their homes and that society has not heard from. In this moment, it’s a perfect opportunity to do something about them.”
Through all the years, Esmeralda Cruz says she feels abandoned by the government which she says has focussed on high-profile Colombian and foreign hostages at the expense of her mother.
“The government has focussed on politicians and military hostages, and the civilians barely get any mention unless they are someone from a very influential family,” Cruz said. “Otherwise, you go to the government office to get help, like I have, then they just tell you, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to think about something else?’ and we know what that something else is. Things like, ‘Your mom is probably dead, move on.'”
President Juan Manuel Santos indicated in recent weeks that civilian hostages will become a priority. Pieded Cordoba, a former senator who has orchestrated several humanitarian handovers, has also said she might now turn more of her attention to missing or kidnapped civilians.
Through the years, Esmeralda Cruz has received mixed signals as to the fate of her mother. A FARC commander many years ago told her that her mother might have been killed by an accidental discharge of a weapon while in captivity, but Esmeralda still demanded proof.
“I told him, ‘OK, I want her body then. Or tell me where she is buried so I can get her body and have a funeral,” she told him.
But the FARC commander could not provide the proof.
As recently as 2007, someone who had contact with the FARC told Mrs Cruz that her mother was still alive and being held against her will. It’s been 16 years since her mother was snatched from her home, and Esmeralda is confident that she is still being held hostage somewhere in the jungles.
“If I could talk to my mom I would tell her a lot of things,” Esmeralda said, choking back tears. “I would tell her that if at any time she thinks she is alone, and that nobody remembers her, is when we are remembering her the most. There has not been one day in the last 16 years she has been forgotten. She has been present in every second of my day.”
“I still have dreams that my mom will come home one day,” Esmeralda concluded.
Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel.
With additional reporting from Maria Elena Romero.