On the funeral niches, a simple and enigmatic acronym keeps coming back, hand painted on white marble: NN. “I don’t know the name” or “Nomen nescio” in Latin.
In the city of Puerto Berrio, in north-central Colombia, dozens of people come to pray every day at the La Dolorosa cemetery in front of these anonymous graves.
Sixty years of civil war have left 120,000 people missing in Colombia, four times more than all the dictatorships of Argentina, Brazil and Chile in the twentieth century.
At the height of the conflict, between 1980 and the beginning of the 2000s, the Magdalena River – the country’s largest river, which flows 1,540 km – carried hundreds of unidentified bodies.
Swollen corpses, often mutilated, and body parts washed up in the brownish waters along Puerto Berrio.
Many of these remains are buried in the cemetery where residents have decided on a strange custom: “adopt” these anonymous dead to honor their memory.
Blanca Bustamante, a desperate mother herself in search of two of her missing children, has thus chosen to take care of an “NN” grave. “I tell myself that if we take care of a missing person, someone somewhere will perhaps watch over my son’s grave,” the 60-year-old consoled herself.
Plastic flowers, a handwritten inscription in paint (“already taken”), sometimes a name indicate that someone is taking care of the burial.
Blanca’s son, a 20-year-old soldier, disappeared 14 years ago while on leave. Then it was his nine-year-old daughter, who disappeared without a trace.
“If they died like NN, there must be other people who love them and take care of them. That’s what I hope …”
– Six watches on the arm –
The historic peace agreement signed in 2016 with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, Marxists) allowed families to go in search of their missing.
It gave birth to the Missing Persons Search Unit (UBPD) which has the mission of locating the victims – mostly civilians – of the ruthless war waged by paramilitaries, guerrillas, drug traffickers and members of the military forces. security.
The UBPD has identified and found 127 bodies to date, following a difficult process of collecting information, comparing DNA samples, and delicate field missions in regions where armed groups and drug traffickers are still rife.
In Puerto Berrio alone, 116 unidentified bodies were found. But there could be as many as 700, according to the UBPD.
Nelly Diaz came to this river port to search for the body of her husband Jose Jesus Cubillos, kidnapped in early 2002 by guerrillas with five other peasants from a neighboring village. We never saw him again. But someone told him that a guerrilla fighter, showing off six watches on his arm, bragged about having shot all six men.
The 57-year-old schoolteacher presumes that her husband’s body was thrown into the river and that the current pushed him for miles. “He might be here,” she blurted out.
She keeps a photo of José on her cell phone. He was 42 when he was taken away. “We have been fighting for so long, as if we were blindfolded, this is the first time that (…) the state has taken care of us”, she confides.
For the director of the UBPD, Luz Marina Monzon, the tradition of “adopting” the tombs of Puerto Berrio is “an act of humanity” which allows “to give meaning to the horror”.
– Fishermen of corpses –
Jose Lupo Escobar is a 69-year-old fisherman who, by his own admission, has a “love-hate” relationship with the river: “for us it is a source of life”, but there was a period “very dark”.
“We found corpses floating underneath (…) we often tore off a leg, a hand, sometimes a head” while trying to recover them, he adds with an air of disgust.
The Magdalena crosses the mountainous center of Colombia before discharging into the Caribbean Sea. Its tumultuous waters carry the bloody memory of war.
Jairo Mira, ex-paramilitary admits, repentant, to having killed during the conflict. And used the river as a “cemetery”.
“Puerto Berrio had become a war zone at the time,” recalls this 56-year-old tanner who joined the paramilitaries as a teenager to fight the far-left guerrillas. He spent 17 years in prison for the massacre of 30 people.
The corpses began to accumulate in the cemetery of La Dolorosa and with them was born “a very particular faith of the community” for the souls of these strangers, explains Ramon Morales, gravedigger of the city in the 2000s.
“An NN was coming in and there were a handful of people at the door saying + keep it for me,” he recalls.
Blanca, she will continue to honor the memory of these unidentified dead, always with the hope of finding the remains of her children. “Even just a little bone, a little finger, that would be a lot for us.”