“I Kept Hoping They Would Be Returned Alive”

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A big white teddy bear sat on top of one of the little coffin boxes, and red roses on the other three. The remains of the four sisters were finally being returned to their mother, Blanca Nieves Meneses.

“I never thought that this is the way they would be returned to me,” said their surviving sister Nancy. “I always kept hoping that they would be returned alive.”

At this ceremony in the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogotá, Colombia, the Attorney General’s office returned the remains of the four young women, the youngest just thirteen, to their family. A paramilitary leader had confessed, as part of the Justice and Peace process, about where the bodies were buried in common graves. At most, those who carried out the crime can receive five to eight years in jail under this transitional justice framework.

The CTI, Colombia’s forensic team, looked on. They seemed both proud to have helped return the remains and personally shaken by the emotion in the room.

“Their crime was to be young and beautiful in a war zone,” said one of the speakers. They were brutally killed by paramilitaries who operated, according to the human rights group MINGA, “with total impunity” in the region.

Colombia’s Vice President Francisco Santos attended. He spoke of a family who had lost one son to the ELN, one to the FARC, and one to paramilitaries, and called for reconciliation. “Today, one family can begin achieving closure and today, the government is strengthening its presence so that blood will stop flowing in Colombia.” But he did not simply state that in this particular case, these unspeakable crimes had been committed by the paramilitaries.

After the young women were disappeared, their mother and sister waged a years-long struggle, at great risk, to achieve justice for Yenny Patricia, Mónica Liliana, Nelsy Milena and María Nely Galárraga Meneses. Their struggle became a catalyst for many other mothers in the region. “I am just a campesina from Putumayo who sows rice and corn,” Ms. Meneses explained. “But I tell all other mothers of the disappeared to keep searching. Justice should not be delayed,” she said, with bitterness. “Justice should arrive on time.” She spoke of the frustrations of trying to receive reparations or other help from the government.

A human rights activist I know saw me sitting in the back and grabbed my shoulder. “I just have to say, I just have to say, this happened in the context of Plan Colombia.” And indeed, this brutal killing and many others occurred as the United States heavily backed a Colombian army offensive into Putumayo in the early years of Plan Colombia, an offensive which expanded side by side with an increased paramilitary presence in the region.

She played the lyre, she liked to play mini-soccer, she liked best to eat fried eggs and french fries, she was an artist, were some of the memories as their relatives remembered them. The sisters Galárraga Meneses, Nelsy Milena, Mónica Liliana, Yenny Patricia, and María Nely.

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