BOGOTA, Colombia — Relatives of those killed in a Colombian massacre put their loved ones to rest Monday nearly two decades after the attack – while also warning that the government hasn’t done enough to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.
Family members held a memorial ceremony in the Chocó province town of Bojayá following a painstaking process in which forensic scientists used DNA to identify nearly 80 people initially buried in mass graves.
Relatives were handed small coffins holding the remains for burial.
Father Esterling Mena told family members the new burial is important because it means those killed will no longer be interred in a place “chosen by war.”
“They are returning to the ground on which they were raised,” he said.
People were sheltering in a Catholic church as leftist rebels clashed with paramilitaries in 2002, and a mortar shell exploded inside, killing dozens.
Despite a 2016 peace accord with the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, victim advocates said illegal armed groups are still threatening residents of the town today.
“The Havana accords gave us a ray of hope,” said Yuber Palacio, reciting a letter written by the Bojayá victims group. “It was a false illusion.”
The Committee for the Rights of the Bojayá Victims warned that new criminal groups are taking control of territories once controlled by rebels and where Colombia’s government has little presence, leading to continued forced displacements, homicides and disappearances.
“In recent months, fear has returned,” the group said in a seven-page letter. “Today, before our deceased adults and children who are guiding us from heaven, we tell the armed groups that we don’t want them in our territory.”
Forensic scientists exhumed victim remains in 2017 that had been buried haphazardly in the turbulent aftermath of the attack.
Claudia Adriana García, the head of Colombia’s forensic services office, said scientists worked closely with families to explain how each person was identified in hopes of providing closure that the initial mass burial did not.
“As victims they thought the Colombian state had not done a proper handover,” she said.
In all, forensic workers were able to identify 72 people using conventional genetic analysis and six more with new, more advanced techniques. Authorities count still unidentified miscellaneous remains as the 79th case.
“Burying once is painful,” the victim organization said in its statement. “Exhuming and burying again tears apart the soul.”
Alberto Brunori, Colombia representative for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said it was urgent for authorities to respond to the community’s warning cry while praising their support for peace.
“Bojayá and the resilience of victims is an example for Colombia and the world,” he said.
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