Historic moment as Truth Commission hears from Victims in Exile

On 13 November 2020, the Truth Commission heard the testimonies of victims of the Colombian Conflict living in exile “Colombia fuera de Colombia.” This was the first time that any Truth Commission had listened to the voices and heard the stories of victims living in exile; forced out of their countries by violence and in fear for their lives, and the lives of their families.

This is the first time in the world that an entity like the [Truth] Commission, which has the mission of reconstructing the collective narrative of violence, has listened to victims in exile.

El Espectador

Despite the fact that displacement and exile can often be the result of a civil conflict and government repression, victims living in exile, until now, have received comparatively little attention when it comes to Transitional Justice.

The Colombian Truth Commission is taking testimonies from 23 countries across the world. “I never thought I would have the right to express myself,” said Andres Perez Berrio, 59, forced into exile in Geneva in 1995.

Hearing the voices of victims living in exile is an important step in the recovery of truth regarding what happened from 1985 to 2016 when Colombia signed a Peace Accord with the left-wing guerrilla group FARC-EP. This historic moment in November 2016, removed the largest guerrilla group from the conflict. However, Colombia has yet to engage in successful Peace Talks with the ELN guerrilla group the second largest in Colombia.

I have heard over the years many stories from those in exile, the pain and suffering they have gone through forced to flee their country because their partner has been disappeared or they have been threatened and fearing for their children and other family members. For those forced into exile there is not only the trauma of fleeing, of arriving in a new county without your extended family and friends but also dealing with the psychological trauma they have lived through in Colombia. Louise Winstanley, Programme and Advocacy Manager, ABColombia.

One women human rights defender, a community leader who worked to protect the rights of peasant farmers, told me, I went from working all hours of the day and night to protect the rights of my community, engaging with government officials, speaking out on behalf of my community, reading legal documents… to being in a country far from my family, alone with my children, with no work and long days stretching out before me. For human rights defenders going into exile they not only leave their country but also their work, their family, their friends, their focus, this can generate a strong reaction which often leaves people feeling depressed. Unfortunately, it can also result in others who are carrying on the struggle in dangerous conditions to feel abandoned by those who have left.

One person during the VII Encounter for Truth, an Indigenous person, forced to leave Colombia, talked about how all the tension and tears over the years of carrying out human rights work in Colombia accumulates. This is because there is no time to cry or to mourn those around you who have been killed. Then you go into exile and all the sadness, the tears the psychological trauma that has accumulated unravels, for him he ended up in hospital.

Living as a refugee in another country can be one of the loneliest places to be. It takes an immense amount of courage to rebuild your life. Not only have those who took part in the event rebuilt their lives but they have also continued to work to promote human rights in Colombia. It is a humbling experience to listen to their testimonies.

You can listen to a “Letter to Colombia” shared by those living in exile in the UK and Ireland here

Listen to Marta Hineztroza talks about documenting testimonies of victims of the Colombian conflict for the Truth Commission (this is only in Spanish). Marta Hinestroza habla sobre documentar testimonios de víctimas del conflicto colombiano para la Comisión de Verdad

The Gathering of Testimonies

According to the Truth Commission, testimonies continue to be taken throughout the pandemic. These can be given individually or as a collective up to 30 June 2020, the commission had successfully conducted 8,977 interviews and had heard accounts from over 16,500 people. 1,339 of these correspond to testimonies given by ethnic communities and 2,323 mention those alleged to be responsible.

During 2019 and 2020 the Truth Commission has documented over 1,000 testimonies in over 23 countries, in cooperation with different civil society actors, across five previously established regions: Europe, North America, the Andean region, Central America, and South America.