The horrific experiences of women during the paramilitary occupation of a little town called El Placer in southwestern Colombia have been collected and published in a report in honor of the fifth “Week of Remembering” in Bogota.
In the Putumayo department the rural town of “El Placer,” which translates as Pleasure, was the setting for more than half a dozen years of violent abuse and torture until the paramilitary demobilization in 2006. The collective accounts by the Historical Center for Memory, “Women Coca and War in Lower Putumayo,” is the result of 18 months of collecting the harrowing testimonies of the survivors.
The women tell the story of their town, “a land of natural resources,” but unfortunately the kind of natural resources which attracted gangs and armed groups that turned the area into a war zone between the leftist FARC guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitaries.
The town had been under the control of guerrillas and drug-traffickers until 1999 when it was invaded by the paramilitaries who moved onto local farms and for the next seven years proceeded to terrorize, murder and torture the people, accusing them of being “civil guerrillas.”
The women recount how the armed men set up checkpoints on the streets of the village and scrutinized the shoulders of youths. If they discovered marks from a backpack, the youths were accused of being members of the FARC and were shot.
The bodies of the murdered were left lying in the streets of El Placer until the women complained. From then on the bodies were dumped into the river which became the largest mass grave in Putumayo.
After a year of intimidation and murder the paramilitaries began selecting women who they claimed were “sluts” or collaborators of the FARC, and the women were kidnapped and forced to be sex slaves.
The women recount how the paramilitaries, drunk and on drugs, would take them at gunpoint and force them to wash their uniforms, cook and clean for them, and then they would be used for sex. One woman recalled how her 11-year-old daughter was repeatedly raped, while another girl of 15 committed suicide.
The sex workers in the town were victims of torture, abuse and humiliation. The paramilitaries would make them clean the rubbish from the streets with signs on their backs telling what sexually transmitted diseases they had. The townswomen however, say it was the armed men themselves who were responsible for spreading diseases with young girls and women.
The paramilitaries set up their own brothels in the town and began importing girls from different parts of the country. The men controlled these girls and even charged them for “services.” If the girls were troublesome or did not comply with the rules of the men they ended up in the waters of the river.
In 2006 when the paramilitaries of the Southern Bloc demobilized the women of El Placer thought they could finally end the chapter of those dark years, but while the prosecution was exhuming bodies from the mass graves, only 40 cases were brought to trial under the Justice and Peace Law. According to newspaper El Tiempo, to date only 22 of the 500 men who invaded the town have been convicted and only another 18 are currently awaiting trial.
The women recall how difficult it was to tell their stories after keeping their silence for so many years, but the report is intended to share the pain of their experiences and to heighten awareness of their plight as well as to show the resilience of these communities who have suffered so much from both sides of the armed conflict.
The Week of Remembering that is currently being celebrated in Bogota will be extended afterwards to various regions of the country, where they will present these accounts of women among others.