‘Where is your [Sister]?’:
A short reflection on the Colombian Truth Commission’s report
July 5, 2022 / By Sonia Garzon
This paraphrased title came to my mind as I heard the speech given by Francisco De Roux at the ceremony convened by the Colombian Truth Commission to hand over its final report . Presented on June 28, 2022, the report is the result of more than three and a half years work and is credited with representing the testimonies of about 30 thousand victims. The actual question pronounced by Francisco De Roux in his speech was “Where is your brother?” And, curiously enough, it literally takes up the ideas of an episode of the Bible, when God asks Cain about his brother whom he has just murdered.
Since 2017, Francisco De Roux has acted as the Chairman of the Colombian Truth Commission, and as it was the case of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, De Roux is also a priest ordained by the Catholic Church. When speaking from his position as Chair of the Commission, De Roux has rarely mentioned the Bible nor has he made direct references to religion in his public statements. His way of speaking to the public and handling his job at the Truth commission can fairly be described as that of a humanist and secular freethinker. However, De Roux’s words inescapably echo a biblical sentence.
But the reason why I draw attention to De Roux’s words “Where is your [sister]?” is the importance it has in framing the report of the Truth Commission’s and directing the audience’s attention to its aim. As provided by the 2016 Peace Agreement, the Commission had the mission of helping to reveal what happened in this armed conflict, to honour the victims, and to foster perpetrators’ acknowledgment of their responsibility for the crimes they committed during the armed conflict. In so doing, the report covers extensively the multiple dimensions of the armed conflict and formulates recommendations. Thus, it addresses multiple forms of violence, giving room to a diversity of experiences and multiple oralities from victims and witnesses. With an estimated 9 million victims, the report shows that the Colombian war left at least 400 thousand deaths, eight out of ten were civilian non-combatants. De Roux’s words were clear, saying to his fellow citizens:
We should not have accepted such barbarity as natural or unavoidable (…). We should not have become accustomed to the ignominy of such violence, as if it had nothing to do with us (…). Why the whole country did not stop early on to demand the guerrillas and the state to end the war and negotiate peace?
The sentence ‘where is your [sister]’ signals one of the answers to these questions which, I argue, is that of human disposability. Disposability in the Colombian war has been deployed as a way of thinking and acting, which makes people believe that the life of their fellow citizens could be rendered disposable. As the Commission’s report suggests, in the context of the Colombian war, to think differently was a reason to see “the other” as an enemy, as dangerous, as a conspirator, and finally as an obstacle whose life can be rendered disposable. As feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe argues, people become disposable when, in somebody’s eyes, they are imagined as not having a name and as not having the right to have a history. And in turn, we can become disposers when we start thinking about people as categories, as a number within a universe of victims of war crimes, and when we stripped the victim of his/her richness and of the complexities of his/her history.
Among its recommendation, the report of the Truth Commission calls on the Colombian state to educate for peace and to dismantle the doctrine of the “enemy within.” Introduced at the end of the 70s as an ideological weapon to fight against guerrilla groups, this doctrine has also been applied to members of social movements and left parties. The doctrine of the “enemy within” allowed to exclude civilians from the protection of the law and, furthermore, it encouraged citizens’ complete rejection and stigmatization of “their other” fellow citizens.
If taken seriously, the question ‘where is your [sister]?’ is a call and plea to undo disposability. To recover the name and history of those “other” non-hegemonic human beings whose life was taken away, to make a better sense of what happened to the victims, and to do what it takes to make sure that the normalization of violence would never repeat again.