The Truth Needs Allies


I did not see, I did not smell, I do not know what you did to them. I have a right to truth, justice and reparation. Lines written on the face and chest of a Colombian protester.

Colombia’s 45 year-old civil war, which pits Marxist guerrillas against government troops and right-wing paramilitaries, has left deep wounds even as the fighting rages on.

Four years ago, 31.000 right-wing paramilitary fighters laid down their arms as part of a controversial peace deal with the government of President Alvaro Uribe. Today, criminal trials involving dozens of paramilitary warlords are underway in U.S and Colombian courts. One notorious ex-militia chief, Salvatore Mancuso, has confessed to over 350 murders, including killings of trade unionists and indigenous and community leaders. The confessions of paramilitary chiefs have exposed their long reign of terror in Colombia.

According to the Colombian government’s forensic medical institute in Bogotá 25.000 people have disappeared in the last four decades most of them between 1998 and 2004. The office of the attorney general has registered 50.000 claims for disappearances. The questions that people are now daring to ask often at considerable personal risks are: Who killed my father, sister or cousin. And where are they buried?

I began work on “The Truth Needs Allies” with the aim of producing a piece of photojournalism that shows the dangerous and difficult task of digging up and identifying Colombia’s war victims. I have spent weeks with the Colombian Government’s most dynamic team of forensic anthropologists. Using information provided by relatives of the victims as well as their killers – disarmed paramilitaries and guerrillas – the team has exhumed more than 350 bodies over the past two years. My photographs document team members as they march into mountains and jungles and locate and exhume bodies, often in active war zones. My images also capture the examination of recovered bones, DNA testing and the dramatic scenes when the remains of victims are turned over to relatives during special “reconciliation” ceremonies.

In the Colombian and international media, there has been almost no coverage of the search for the disappeared. Not knowing what happened to relatives, not knowing who were the perpetrators of the crimes, not knowing whether the missing are alive or dead makes life very difficult in both emotional and practical terms.

Some families have been waiting for word about their loved ones for more then 20 years. Their lives are on hold. When victims are missing and there is no death certificate, their family members have no access to savings accounts in the name of the victims. Grandparents, uncles and sisters are unable to petition for the custody of the victims children. And in some cases, the relative of the victims come under pressure from the killers to keep quiet about the crimes.

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