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Colombia: The Task of Reconstructing Historical Narratives when the Conflict is Ongoing
Pilar Riaño-Alcalá
During the ‘Week of Memory’, September 20th - 30th 2010, the Commission of Historical Memory presents four major reports on emblematic episodes of the war in Colombia. Pilar Riaño-Alcalá is one of the researchers in the commission, and the rapporteur / co-rapporteur of two reports.


During the ‘Week of Memory’, September 20th - 30th 2010, the Commission of Historical Memory (MH for its name in Spanish) presents four major reports on emblematic episodes of the war in Colombia. Pilar Riaño-Alcalá, Faculty Fellow at the Liu Institute for Global Issues and Associate Professor at the School of Social Work, is one of the researchers in the commission, and is the rapporteur of one report, and the co rapporteur of another. Pilar specializes in themes of memory, violence and displacement, and in developing participatory and oral history based methodologies that document memories of violence and locate victims’ voices at the center of the historical reconstruction.

MH is an independent research group of the Colombian National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (CNRR) whose mission is to develop and release an inclusive and integrated narrative of the reasons for the emergence and the evolution of the internal armed conflict in Colombia. MH aims to document the different narratives generated in the middle of the conflict, with a preference for the truths and memories of the victims and for those that have until now been suppressed, subordinated or silenced. Moreover, the group formulates public policy proposals to facilitate the effective exercise of the rights to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees for non‐repetition. Given the nature of its mandate, MH enjoys academic and operational autonomy to perform its task with scientific rigor and veracity.


“The Massacre of Bahia Portete: Wayuu women in the crosshairs” documents a forgotten and brutal episode of the war in Colombia. On April 18 2004, the paramilitary targeted, disappeared and killed four Wayuu women and two other members of the community, tortured several others, displaced the entire community and desecrated the cemetery. A resistance led by the women of the community, and the community’s deep linkages to their ancestral land, were seen by the paramilitary as an obstacle to their goals of occupying the region and taking control of the area’s smuggling, drug and gun trafficking and the royalties received from the exploitation of coal, salt and other mineral resources. The report reconstructs in a perspective of historical clarification the events leading up to the massacre, the massacre and the events that follow, based on victims’ testimonies, judicial and historical sources as well as documentary information and construction of databases on human rights violations in the region.

This massacre is emblematic of the gender and ethnic dimensions of the conflict in Colombia. The report describes how sexual violence and torture were used by the paramilitary during and after the massacre with the intention to attack these women because of their gender and ethnic identities and the key role they played as social leaders. It calls attention to the pervading stereotypes and misunderstandings on the ways that war related violence affects the Wayuu by government officials, non government organizations, the media and even academia, who have silenced the political dimensions of this massacre, presenting it instead as the result of intraethnic warfare or delinquent activities. The report also documents the courageous resistance and search for justice of the Wayuu, - particularly the women in their roles as leaders and intermediaries between the Wayuu and the non Wayuu world - their initiatives of documentation of historical memory and social commemoration, as well as the local memory disputes and perspectives on the past. 

“Bojaya. The war without limits” reconstructs the massacre of Bojaya in which 79 people died during an armed confrontation between the paramilitary forces of the United Self Defenses of Colombia (AUC) and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). The paramilitary barricaded themselves behind a church where over 300 local residents had taken refuge. The FARC then fired a cooking gas cylinder full of explosives that landed in the church and killed 79 civilians, 48 of them children. The horror lived by the afro Colombian and indigenous populations of Bojaya around the events known as the massacre of Bojaya is emblematic of the violence of the war in Colombia and its impacts. The reconstruction of this massacre and the events associated with it by the Commission of Historical Memory followed a consultative and participatory process with the community and social organizations of the region.

The report documents the direct responsibility in the massacre of the paramilitary and guerrilla as well as the Colombian state and armed forces. It analyses the impacts, judicial and international dimensions of this event that is typified as a crime of war given that both armed actors transgressed all the principles of the International Humanitarian Law. The massacre of Bojaya was a treacherous and indiscriminate attack against civilians, trapped in the crossfire of a war without limits.


In July of 2010, two leaders and survivors of the massacre of Bojaya, Delis Palacios and Leyner Palacios, joined Erin Baines and Pilar Riaño-Alcalá in Northern Uganda for an exchange and research trip linked to the research project “Against Mass Atrocities. Community Based Strategies to Document Human Rights Abuses in Settings of Ongoing Conflict (Colombia and Uganda)”.  In Uganda, they met survivors groups and victims of war related violence and exchanged their strategies to document human rights violations and memories of the past as well as their community organizing strategies to demand truth, justice and reparation. The exchange was hosted by the Justice and Reconciliation Project (Gulu, Uganda). In October of 2010, two members of the Justice and Reconciliation Project will travel to Colombia to continue with the second phase of this exchange and research project.



Photos by Jesus Abad Colorado and Pilar Riaño-Alcalá. 

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