The pandemic is yet another test for Colombian human rights defenders

The extrajudicial killing of my son burst the bubble I was living in. This pandemic is yet another test of our endurance and how big our hearts are to help those in need. #HumansofCOVID9 Español

Luz Marina Bernal
30 July 2020, 8.36am
Lockdown hasn't stopped Luz Marina Bernal's activism.
UN Women

I am Luz Marina Bernal. I live in Soacha, a municipality neighboring Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, which is the main destination for displaced people from the rest of the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown have made things very difficult for me as I work on the ground with people and communities, but I live alone.

I became a human rights activist after my son, Fair Leonardo Porras Bernal, was forcibly disappeared in 2008. At the time, I was happily married and had four children. But after Leonardo died and I began to question authorities about what happened, we received death threats. I had to protect the rest of my children and encouraged them to move them away.

My husband couldn’t cope with the situation so we broke apart, and I had to leave our home.

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My son was kidnapped on 8 January 2008. I spent eight months looking for him in hospitals and homeless shelters. He was 26, but was disabled and his mind was that of an eight-year-old boy. This was the result of a car crash I was in while pregnant.

I was worried he couldn’t find his way back home, so I started to look for him in homeless spots. On 16 September, the forensic office requested that I look at photos of a dead body, which could potentially be my son’s. It was. They told me he had been found in Ocaña, more than 600km away, in a mass grave.

Army members kidnapped and killed my disabled son, declaring him a guerrilla fighter who was shot dead in combat.

It was hard to believe he had travelled so far by himself. My husband, my oldest son and I went to Ocaña to recover his body. I met another three families from Soacha whose children had also been found dead in Ocaña.

The question was why those Soacha boys ended up in Ocaña. The prosecutor on duty laughed at me and asked if I was the mother of a narco-terrorist group leader. I asked him if a disabled and analphabetic person with paralysis in his right arm and leg could lead such a group. He stopped laughing and said: “He died in a clash with the army.”

My eldest son, who had served in the army for two years, broke down in tears. I had been so proud to have a son in the military and serving our homeland. How on earth could our national army murder my other defenceless son?

I decided to start my work right then. My main motivation came from listening to Álvaro Uribe, the president at the time, who suggested the murdered boys had criminal intentions.

I took my son’s picture and promised I would fight to clear his name. Then I met more mothers like me in Soacha. First, we were eight then grew to nineteen. This is how the group Madres de Soacha (Mothers of Soacha) was born.

Army members kidnapped and killed my son, declaring him a guerrilla fighter who was shot dead in combat. The “false positives” were made up of thousands of extrajudicial killings of young, unarmed civilians. Soldiers and officers got rewards in money and promotions based on ‘combat casualties’.

I had to study human rights issues for years to understand the Colombian conflict. It was terrible to find out there were more than eight million victims of crimes against humanity, including forced disappearances, torture, kidnappings, sexual violence and the recruitment of child soldiers in my country.

It was like entering into an unknown world. I’d lived in a bubble for many years with my beautiful family. I had no idea of the sort of country Colombia was. And when I got to know, the bubble burst and turned my life upside down. Since 2008, we had been repeatedly requesting to meet the president or the general attorney, but they refused. In 2010, during the electoral campaign, Uribe remembered Mothers of Soacha and finally invited us to the presidential house.

My children are not nearby. They left years ago due to the death threats. It’s better this way, as I can do my work safely if I know they are protected.

I refused to go, against the wishes of the fellow mothers. Two weeks later, he granted each of us an amount of $7,800. It was impossible for me to accept the money, as you can’t sell the memory and dignity of your children. But the others got upset and asked me to leave the group.

Later in 2010, death threats were made against all our families. They slipped leaflets with threatening messages under our doors. My eldest son endured these threats for more than two years. One message said: “It’s a pity you have to die in vain, but it’s the only way to shut up your mother.”

The interior ministry and the prosecutor’s office did nothing to protect us. We managed to get help abroad. Amnesty International launched a campaign to denounce this situation and garner support for us. “Give a rose and hope to Mothers of Soacha,” they said. We were given 5,500 roses and received more than 25,000 letters from all over the world.

I travelled to Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands and Spain to meet local Amnesty groups and denounce the threats against us at the International Criminal Court and the European parliament. This is how the international community looked after Mothers of Soacha.

Six military members were convicted in 2013 for the murder of Leonardo, which was also declared a crime against humanity. But more recently they invoked their right to be prosecuted by a transitional justice court, established by the 2016 peace agreement signed by the government and FARC guerrillas. Now they walk free.

I support other mothers and work in different Colombian regions where people ignore their rights. While I am a mother of Soacha, now I speak on behalf of a multitude of other victims. Soacha was just the tip of the iceberg.

On 20 February, we finished a year-long project in the Magdalena Medio region with the families of 180 people who have suffered forced disappearance. Shortly after I came back home, the lockdown was imposed.

My children are not nearby. They left years ago due to the death threats. They first moved to different cities – Neiva, Medellín, Villavicencio – and then to other places. It’s better this way, as I can do my work safely if I know they are protected. I also have five beautiful grandchildren but sadly I can’t spend time with them as I should.

The quarantine has been too harsh, as few people in this country have extra resources to survive without income. Some friends and groups are supportive and provide me with medicines I can’t afford to buy.

I keep in contact with many people here and abroad through WhatsApp, and I enjoy reading, weaving and embroidering.

I am worried about homeless people, as they have no clean place to quarantine themselves. Nobody cares about them. I feel so helpless I can’t do anything for them. So along with other friends, I decided to make face masks with the logo of Matarife (meaning ‘Slaughterman’, which is the name of a documentary series about Uribe), sell them and get funds to donate food to the underprivileged.

This pandemic is yet another test of endurance, to see if we are strong enough to carry on and how big our hearts are to help those in need.

[As told to Diana Cariboni]

The Colombian Special Jurisdiction of Peace, a court established by the 2016 accords that put an end to a 50-year long civil war, identified 4,439 victims of extrajudicial killings, falsely declared as combat casualties by military members, between 2002 and 2008. In Colombia, which has the fifth highest number of COVID-19 cases in Latin America, the pandemic has been used to increase violence against human rights defenders and former guerrilla fighters, according to a UN report released in July.

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