Postcard from the Field

by Vikki Bell

16 November 2018
Originally published in our Old Blog.

The internal armed conflict in Colombia has been — and remains — such a complex story, that the first task for our interviewees this week has been to try to convey to us the depth and complexity of the task of recording what has happened here — before we even begin to consider the dimensions of the current task of attempting to establish Peace after the 2016 Agreement. The ‘multiple actors’, the changing rationales of the violence, and the entwined problems of land grabbing, drug trafficking, multinational interests and political affiliations, make any simple narrative of causation impossible. And the incomprehensible cruelty of the violence and horrors that have been perpetrated — the ‘dismembering and expelling’ as anthropologist Maria Victoria Uribe (2004) put it, the massacres and the razing of whole villages — perpetrated on mostly rural, poor communities, beggars belief. Trying to speak of this conflict, now on-going for some seventy years, is nevertheless the daily work of our interviewees. They offer us statistics and speak of ‘emblematic cases’ as ways to convey a sense of the scale and the profound violence that has been, and that continues. Some show us photographs, short videos, offered vignettes — how scores of people of the village of Bojayá were killed as they sheltered in the church, the mother whose sons fought on different sides of the conflict who prompts one interviewee to comment ‘we have to speak of reconciliation here’ — and present their plans for the future. One large project to which the Agreement has committed Colombia is a national memorial museum. And they give us books… we’re returning with very heavy suitcases!

This has been our first research visit to Colombia as a team, and we’ve been trying to speak to as many people who can give insights into the work of the archives of the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, its methods of working and its place within the apparatus following the Agreement. Our research project — ‘Documentality & Display’, funded by the British Academy — considers the work of documenting violence that takes place during and after conflict, and how the systems people have devised in the three countries we are considering — as well as Colombia, we will conduct research in Argentina and Chile — to archive the events, can aid later legal, social and cultural processes.

It quickly became clear that the archive of the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica is not a traditional archive, in the sense of one that receives and organises information and data that emerges elsewhere. Instead it grew out of a research project, headed by sociologist Gonzalo Sánchez, who led a team of committed researchers in attempting to document the violence through research methods we’d recognise as sociological. There has been and is still a deep sense of commitment to an ethical, rigorous and responsive research. The team at the Centre conduct research, negotiate ethical issues, produce academic-style reports and disseminate information not least through their website, like an academic department. But the research Centre has gradually become part of the infrastructure of government, which recognised the need for such detailed knowledge, and wanted to make research and a comprehensive archive part of its plan for peace. The archive project was incorporated into the 2011 so called ‘Law of the Victims’ (Law 1448), and the 2016 Agreement between the government and the FARC explicitly included tasks for research, for an archive and for the national Museum of memory, and the Centre is centrally involved in these. Not least, the team seeks out ‘archives’ of the violence that exist already in different forms throughout the country, including those of indigenous and other rural communities, seeking to help organise them and, where permission is granted, to digitalise them for the Centre’s web-based archive. The recent change of government, however, has obliged Sanchez to step away from the directorship, and no new director has yet been appointed. We caught the Centre in a period of uncertainty in this regard.

Nevertheless, work continues. The winning architectural proposal for the National Museum is also in place, the themes for the museum have been chosen and the exhibits are being designed. We interviewed those tasked with bringing it to fruition, as well as those involved in the local Bogotá Centre for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation which is also busy with on-going workshops, pedagogical activities and planning its future ‘memory’ exhibitions. The photograph is of this latter, the local centre, with its high entrance hall that incorporates test tubes filled with soil collected from thousands of sites across the country. In the background, you can see the old cemetery. We asked the current director whether the siting of this Centre here was significant in some way. He answered, no, it was not chosen for this reason, but co-incidentally, the cemetery is the place where hundreds of bodies were laid out in 1948 after the Bogotazo, the days of rioting that followed the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the charismatic liberal leader, as he campaigned for the presidency, events that were to trigger the period known as La Violencia for decades to come. The photographer Luis Alberto Gaitán took some photographs of the shocking scenes; the bodies are laid out in front of the columbarium wall, as those who have presumably come to seek out their missing, clutch handkerchiefs to their faces to block the stench. Today the wall marks the perimeter of the grounds of the Centro de Memoria, Paz y Reconciliación, each niche filled with a little stencil of two men carrying a stick from which hangs a sack, a body bag, like a carcass.

Since Colombia is in the unusual position of attempting to enter transitional phase ‘pre-post-conflict’ as one author has put it, it is obvious that the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica and the regional centres have a complex and challenging role. Many people are enthusiastic and there is incredible commitment, thoughtfulness and energy. But there are critical, sceptical voices too. At the bookshop, I pick up a badge advertising the recent novel by the award winning Colombian author Ricardo Silva Romero, Cómo perderlo todo (How to lose it all); perhaps I’m seeing dissent where there is none but the badge has a succinct message: ‘Fuck 2016’.

Vikki Bell is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.

︎ Centre for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation in Bogotá. Image by Vikki Bell.