By Agence France-Presse
They clamber onto buses and stand among the jostling commuters, portraits of missing loved ones hanging from their necks, their presence a reminder that despite a 2016 peace agreement, for some, Colombia’s conflict has never really ended.
The women are on the bus to beg, not for money, just for a moment of their fellow passengers’ attention: “Have you seen my daughter?” or “Have you seen my son?”
These are the self-styled “Searchers” of Cali, a city that has known more than its share of violence during Colombia’s half-century of civil strife.
Their faces lined with worry, they haunt its public transport stations, brandishing giant portrait photos of their children, missing victims of the country’s many-sided conflict.
“It’s like a cry that we are launching, so that the world will know, so that it becomes aware,” said Maria Elena Gallego, who has spent the last eight years looking for her missing daughter.
Gallego is one of a group of 35 women seeking to draw attention to the victims of forced disappearances, which were a feature of Colombian life during a half-century of conflict.
Every day, they board buses carrying their children’s portraits, distributing handwritten letters recounting their poignant, unceasing searches.
“Mothers of missing people carry eternal pain,” says one missive.
Official figures put the “disappeared” at nearly 83,000 — almost three times the number missing under the dictatorships of Argentina, Brazil and Chile combined.
“Where is She?”, “Where is He?” — the questions are written in bold lettering over the ageless portraits of the long lost: civilians and soldiers, men and women, but mostly the young.
Therapy for absence
Gallego says she knows little about what happened to her daughter Sandra Viviana Cuellar, an environmental activist. She left her home on February 17, 2011, heading to Palmira, a town around 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Cali, and never returned. She was 26.
“I got down to the task of investigating her disappearance, going from here to there, even attending workshops to learn how to look for my daughter, because what I want most is for her to reappear,” she says in her letter.
Gallego says telling strangers about her experience is a kind of balm against uncertainty.
“At least we go out, we shout, we talk, we cry! It’s an outlet! It’s therapy! But the pain, we take it with us everywhere,” she tells AFP.
A campaign called #ReconocemosSuBusqueda (We recognize your search) was launched this year to highlight the work of these women, who have taken on the weary task of investigating the disappearances alone.
The initiative is supported by Colombia’s Missing Persons Research Unit and the Truth Commission, created as part of the 2016 peace agreement that ended the armed conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Though Colombian officials have never given her any leads in the search for her daughter, Gallego believes Sandra disappeared because of her environmental work. She still believes that her daughter is alive.
Met with indifference
Luz Edilia Florez, 57, paid a heavy price for wanting to know what happened to her son, Jose Ernesto Moran, kidnapped by a far-right militia in the southwestern area of Jamundi.
When paramilitaries found out she was investigating his 2002 disappearance, she says they seized her, raped her, tortured her, and left her for dead.
These days, she rides the buses of Cali, distributing her message and brandishing her son’s portrait. In her letter, she lambasts the “indifference” of society towards the women’s stories.
Hanging onto a bar overhead, the picture of her son hung around her neck, she sings a lament to the other passengers gazing at the image. Hope propels her forward, though she admits: “My son could be in a grave.”
Part of the difficulty she and other mothers face is the many-sided aspect of Colombia’s conflict, in which around 30 armed groups were involved, both pro- and anti-government.
According to the National Center for Historical Memory, at least 82,998 people were forcibly disappeared between 1958 and 2017.
Only in 52 percent of cases do authorities know who was responsible.
Florez’s wish on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, held on August 30 each year, is that “there will be no more missing,” and that she’ll find her son.