This story contains graphic accounts that readers may find disturbing.
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - At least 220,000 Colombians have been killed - eight in every 10 of whom are civilians - during Colombia’s conflict since 1958, according to a landmark report by a local research centre.
The report published on Wednesday by Colombian researchers at the National Centre for Historical Memory in Bogota is based on dozens of testimonies collected over six years from victims of the conflict in villages and towns across the country. It is being billed as the most exhaustive study ever produced about the war crimes committed by armed groups during the country’s five decade-long conflict.
Fighting - between government troops, drug-running rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), other smaller guerrilla groups, and right-wing paramilitaries initially created to fight leftist rebels but later heavily involved in the cocaine trade - has left hundreds of thousands dead, 25,000 missing and more than 5 million Colombians uprooted or displaced, the report said.
The report examines the motivations of armed groups and the victims they left behind as a way to heal the wounds of war by giving a voice to victims, and to lay the groundwork for reconciliation as the government and top FARC commanders hold peace talks in Havana.
“So many Colombians have suffered violence. It’s a war, above all, that has claimed the lives of civilians. We have a moral and ethical responsibility towards the victims, to explain what happened in the war,” Gonzalo Sanchez, head of the National Centre for Historical Memory, told an audience of victims, community leaders, government officials and the Colombian president in Bogota on Wednesday.
Drug trafficking, corruption, inequality and the lack of land reform, along with an ineffectual justice system that has failed to prosecute many of those responsible for war crimes, are all factors behind the protracted war, he said.
“The most important antidote to violence is the strengthening of democracy and justice.”
Victims of the conflict shared gruesome testimony in the report, telling of war crimes committed by all warring factions, including state security forces.
Women described being forced to become sex slaves. Mothers witnessed killings or lost family members who disappeared or were murdered. Families were forced from their homes at gunpoint, while others were taken hostage and tortured.
Of all the human rights atrocities committed during the conflict, sexual violence used as a weapon of war has been the most invisible and underreported crime, the report found.
One woman quoted in the report relates how she was gang raped by paramilitary fighters in a house where she and four other women and girls were locked up and used as sex slaves in the village of El Placer in Colombia’s southern Putumayo province.
Paramilitary fighters were known to use sexual violence to sow terror among local communities and as punishment for anyone they regarded as collaborating with their enemies, the FARC rebels.
“They (paramilitary fighters) would come to the house drunk, on drugs and would take us out into the yard pointing small and big weapons at us and then they would forcibly lock us up in a room. Once three men at the same time did what they wanted with me. They would leave after sex. It was very difficult. We couldn’t leave the house. We’d spend our time washing their uniforms, cleaning the house and cooking for them. I remember one girl, who was 15 years old, committed suicide. She couldn’t take it anymore,” the woman, whose name is not given, is quoted as saying in the report.
In another incident the same woman describes being attacked by a group of nine paramilitary fighters along a village road.
“Once I was naked, they started one by one to penetrate me. They all hit my face, pulled out my hair, put their penises in my mouth and then at one stage started to put their guns in my vagina. After each one had done what they wanted to do with me, they filled my vagina with sand and stones and told me I would never forget about them,” she said.
The government of Juan Manuel Santos has said compensating and providing justice for victims of the conflict is a top priority.
In 2011, the Santos government passed historic legislation that aims to return millions of hectares of stolen land to their rightful owners and provide up to $12,000 in compensation to victims and families of those who have died in the violence inflicted by all sides in the conflict.
The report is an important step towards building peace in Colombia, President Santos said.
“In recent years, I’ve spoken many times about the importance of truth, justice and reparation so that Colombia can build a country in peace,” he said.
“We have to admit that we reached rock bottom. The war dehumanised us…. It (the report) reveals uncomfortable truths, and most Colombians don’t understand the pain that so many victims have suffered over the course of 50 years of war. It’s a first step in the right direction to know and understand our truth.”