Palestina, Huila: 40 years searching for the disappeared

Sep 10, 2023 | Human Rights, Impunity and Justice, News, Our Partners, Peace and Nonviolence

August 30, 2023.

We find ourselves standing at the entrance to Palestina, Huila – a tiny municipality found in the south of Colombia and nestled amongst the Macizo Colombiano, an extensive geographic region from which many of Colombia’s most important rivers and central mountain ranges are born. We stand beside local community members, many of whom are victims of violence and armed conflict themselves, and who have come to pay homage and remember the past. Like us, they were invited by the Chimonja Coy family and the Conpazcol Victims Network to gather together, commemorate, and reflect during the International Day for Victims of Forced Disappearance. Some have arrived on bike, slowly cycling around the municipality in remembrance of those who were lost. According to the Truth Commission, between 1985 and 2016 there have been 121,768 cases of forced disappearance throughout the country. Today, we have come to take part not only in remembering the past, but to celebrate and recognize the advancements that have been made toward a more peaceful country. Here in Palestina, 40 years have passed since the disappearance of Tulio Enrique Chimonja and Libia Astudilla Chimonja.

A large, colorful mural marks the entrance of Palestina. Written in white letters is the phrase: Biodiverse and peaceful territory. We are taken to see the mural with community members, both victims of the armed conflict.

“This mural was constructed by families in Palestina in memory of the victims, so that those who were and those who are victims are not forgotten”, they explain to us.

“The victims of Palestine wrote the report for the Truth Commission based on the victimizing facts. As a closure of the process, this mural was made. And this,” they say, pointing to the white letters, “is the dream of reaching a Biodiverse and Peaceful Territory”.

Palestina, in the South of Huila, makes up part of the Macizo Colombiano, a unique and fragile ecosystem from which Colombia’s main river systems are born. From here, these rivers weave their way across the country, where they feed into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is here in this region that the country’s first national park was formed, Cuevas de los Guácharos, named after the Guácharo (in English, the Oilbird), distinguished by its brown feathers and white spots. This bird has become the protagonist in these two days of memory and reconciliation.

The Chimonja Coy family farm serves as our meeting point, and local grassroots groups gather alongside international accompaniers, representatives of the interior ministry, the National Center of Historical Memory, signatories of the Peace Accords, and representatives of the “Hasta Encontrarlos”, a foundation dedicated to forcibly displaced persons.

Under the dim light of the moon, family and friends, many of whom have witnessed assassinations and disappearances with their own eyes – from the rise in violence in the 80s, to the genocide of the Patriotic Union – share memories of those lost, from the last moment they saw them to the present.

On the third of September we wake up early. We are going to La Esperanza, a biodiverse zone that was created for restauration and reconciliation by the Chimonja Coy family. Of its 15 total hectares, only 3 have been cultivated. The remaining area has been transformed into a natural reserve – a forest thick with trees that were planted to remember those who have been lost and celebrate the continuity of life. Each of us are given a small tree to plant, to contribute to the growth of the forest. We call them our trees of life.

Our hope is for these trees to grow fruit for the Guacharo, the bird that is typical to this region, and which gave name to a report entitled, “Truth from our birds, the Guacharos, and memory of flight in a Biodiverse Territory”, elaborated by the victims of Palestina and given to the National Center of Historical Memory during this event.

We are taken to the unveiling of a new monument, highlighting the Guacharo itself. One of the community members explains its significance to us:

“The guacharo is doing something very different than we are right now. We are destroying everything. The guacharo, however, travels very far in order to find food. At the same time, they are also planting seeds. If you were to go to one of their caves, you would find tiny plants everywhere. They planted these. We need to learn from them”.