Can forensic science advances bring closure for relatives of tens of thousands of Colombia’s war disappeared?
Soacha, Colombia – Navigating a steep slope with a bucket of water Rosa Fierro is careful not to spill a single drop of her precious cargo.
She makes the short journey down the hill from her small wooden shack up to 10 times a day to collect water from a black tank perched on the side of a mountain overlooking a sand quarry.
“Welcome to Piedras Blancas!” Rosa laughs as she dips her purple bucket in the tank and fills it to the brim. “This is the only way I can get water,” Rosa explains as she rushes back home to prepare lunch. “When this runs out we’ll have to wait for the next delivery; that could take a few days or sometimes more than a week.”
Rosa fled her home in Cali after her father was threatened by paramilitaries. She is classified as one of Colombia’s internally displaced persons (IDPs). She lives with her partner in the neighbourhood of Piedras Blancas (White Stones) in Soacha neighbourhood, located to the south of the Colombian capital Bogota. It’s an impoverished, chaotic community with basic dirt roads, no sewage system or even running water.
The sprawling slum city is home to more than a million people and has one of the highest concentrations of displaced people in Colombia. More than 54,000 residents of Soacha are registered as IDPs – victims of Colombia’s long-running civil war that ended last November following a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The UN estimates that Colombia has nearly seven million IDPs – higher than in both Syria and Iraq. About half of those live in the urban centres of Bogota, Medellin and Cali. The remainder are scattered in remote regions along the Pacific coast.
“We’re the forgotten victims of this war,” says Rosa’s neighbour Maria Garzon, who moved to Piedras Blancas four months ago after struggling to pay rent in Bogota. She describes her new home as “rustic” but says its better than living on the streets. The family live in cramped conditions and survive without any running water and a sporadic power supply that is switched on at night.
“It’s a struggle to raise a family in a place with no proper sanitary facilities,” says Garzon. “All I want is a nice home where my children can have a shower like everyone else.”
Nowhere else to go for the displaced
Rosa Fierro, 22, and her partner Juan Carlos Orjuela, 37, both fled their homes after they refused to be recruited by local paramilitaries.
“I used to have a good life in Cali,” Rosa reminisces as she prepares lunch in her sparse kitchen. “They tried to kill my father and we managed to escape with our lives. If I ever went back I’d either be killed or recruited as a paramilitary,” Fierro told Al Jazeera.
Rosa arrived in Soacha with just a small bundle of clothes and some family photos. Two years ago, she met Juan Carlos and they decided to set up home together. Orjuela found a vacant plot in the remote hillside community of Piedras Blancas and quickly built a wooden shack for the couple.
These poorly constructed, informal settlements are illegal but the authorities are powerless to stop them as the displaced have nowhere else to go.
Space is tight in the couple’s small house. Their clothes hang from a line strewn across the ceiling, stacks of dishes are piled high on wall racks, their sofas are carefully arranged in a corner of the house on the exposed earthen floor.
But despite the cramped conditions, the biggest problem they face is dealing with the cold and damp conditions. “The timber walls have big gaps so the wind and rain hits you during the night when you’re sleeping,” said Juan Carlos Orjuela. “It’s a battle to keep warm and dry.”
Eight years ago, Orjuela was targeted by paramilitaries in Venadillo, a small town in the state of Tolima. After finishing his military service he was approached by a local gang member and told to sign up. When he refused, he was shot and left for dead.
“Look, I have five bullet wounds,” he says, pointing to his torso and groin to prove his injuries. “I was in a coma for four months and I lost a lung. I know I’m lucky to still be alive.”
Orjuela hasn’t seen his family in eight years. “When my mother died I couldn’t go to her funeral. They know nothing about me or how I’m doing. I’ll probably never see my father again.”
According to the city’s Regional Office for Victims (CRAV), Soacha is one of Colombia’s top destinations for displaced people.
“More than eight percent of the population are considered casualties of the armed conflict,” says Sonia Tarquino, who runs the office. “We help them rebuild their lives, try to get them jobs and a decent house,” Tarquino told Al Jazeera.
Many victims of the conflict thought all their troubles were over once peace was declared with the FARC but, for some IDPs, their lot has worsened. As the FARC pulled out of their former strongholds, other right-wing paramilitary groups took over bringing chaos and uncertainty to the local population.
“They’re still coming to Soacha from all over the country looking for protection and a safe place to live,” says Nieves Batres, a field officer for the UNHCR. “Since the peace deal, the number of new arrivals has dropped to about 1,000 so far this year. There’s less kidnappings, but they’re facing threats from the new armed groups,” Batres said.
According to the UNHCR most families arrive in a very vulnerable state. They’re not prepared for the shock of living in a big city.
“They think they’ve escaped the guerrillas for good, but they’re faced with other unfamiliar groups and paramilitaries that control Soacha’s neighbourhoods,” Batres told Al Jazeera during one of her regular excursions to Soacha.
Despite Soacha’s basic living conditions, high unemployment and a recent spate of drug-related killings the vast majority of IDPs decide to settle permanently there.
“They prefer it to their own towns and villages because it’s safer and gives them a fresh start,” Batres said.
The political crisis in neighbouring Venezuela has brought a new wave of economic migrants to an already overcrowded and under-resourced city.
Soacha’s administrative office for victims of the conflict has been inundated with Venezuelans seeking shelter and protection.
“We’ve helped 250 Venezuelans since January,” says manager Sonia Tarquino, “but we’re just counting those that have physically come through our doors. There’s hundreds more out there, and we’re powerless to help them if they don’t come and see us,” Tarquino said.
Eduard Sanche, 23, arrived in Soacha five months ago after a gruelling five-day journey from the city of Maracay in northcentral Venezuela. Sanche left his wife and two young children behind because he couldn’t afford the transport costs for his family.
“I had no other choice but to come to Colombia,” said Sanche after a meeting with officials. “There’s nothing back home for my family – no jobs, food or medicines. I had to find a way to support them and keep them safe.”
Colombia’s Migration office says there are at least 300,000 Venezuelans living in the country. According to their most recent report, more than 53,000 have overstayed their visas and up to 140,000 have entered the country without officially registering with the authorities.
“I used to work as an accountant in Venezuela,” says Eduard Sanche, “but I had to give it up because I wasn’t earning enough to keep us going.”
Sanche is living with his Venezuelan friends in temporary accommodation. He spends his days looking for jobs in Soacha. “I’m trying to find work and send money back to my family but it’s hard, because I don’t have the official documentation that grants work status.”
For now, Eduard is working as a labourer on a construction site and earns 35,000 Colombian pesos ($13) a day.
“It’s tough but at least I’m providing for my family,” Eduard told Al Jazeera after one of his daily phone calls to his wife back home. “Soacha is not perfect, but I hope to bring my family to Colombia as soon as I’ve saved enough money.”
Peace deal for all?
In the run-up to Colombia’s peace referendum, President Juan Manuel Santos promised that victims of the 52-year civil war would have a better, stable life after peace was agreed with the FARC.
Almost a year later many residents in the dusty, sparse hills of Soacha are still waiting to be resettled. Hope is fading that they’ll ever be able to return and there’s growing resentment towards Santos and his administration.
“It’s all a big lie,” says Maria Garzon as she washes dishes in a shed that doubles as both a kitchen and a bedroom for her eldest son. “The peace process hasn’t made any difference to my life at all.”
Pope Francis‘ trip to Colombia was intended to promote reconciliation and strike an optimistic, hopeful tone but the pontiff arrives in a country more divided than ever.
In October’s referendum more than half the country voted against the peace deal and since then little has changed to improve the mood of the electorate.
The conflict has left a legacy of distrust for displaced citizens like Rosa Fierro and Juan Carlos Orjuela. “Santos didn’t invite Pope Francis to visit Soacha because he [Francis] would see the truth about how we’ve been abandoned,” says Orjuela as he prepares for another long shift as a security guard.
“I work 12 hours, seven days a week, for $15 a day and we’re so broke I couldn’t celebrate my birthday in April. I had to wait until August to have a joint party with Rosa.”
Santos may be the president who finally brought peace to Colombia, but the residents of Soacha aren’t sure he has accomplished the biggest challenge coming from the deal – persuading the public that the deal will benefit everyone.
“I still can’t return home, neither can Rosa or my neighbours,” said Orjuela. “When I get up tomorrow I’ll still have the same problems, putting food on the table and just surviving the day. My day-to-day life hasn’t changed since the peace deal.”