MEDELLÍN, Colombia – Medellín, Colombia’s second most important city after Bogotá and one of the most violent in the world in the 1980s, gives a voice to victims of the armed conflict that has spanned five decades.
Under the premise “Remember, so that it will not be repeated,” the city of Medellín in 2006 planned the Casa de la Memoria Museum, where the conflict’s victims would tell their stories and receive support working as guides.
Antioquia, where Medellín is located, is the department that reported the largest number of victims in the conflict during the past 30 years – 1.2 million of a total of six million – according to the Colombian government’s Victims Unit.
Since its inauguration in 2011, Casa de la Memoria has served as a center for documenting the most disastrous chapters of Colombian history, as survivors tell their stories of murder, torture, kidnappings and forced displacement.
By making their pain visible through their stories, guides say they’ve found peace, while also feeding the hope that by spreading their stories, they will be able to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.
“I am a victim through four people,” said Luz Mery Arias, a 55-year-old resident of the working-class Pablo Escobar neighborhood in Medellín. “My son, who was prevented from coming home four years ago, which is to say that he was displaced; two brothers, who were killed at home during the Pablo Escobar era and a brother-in-law, who was killed by the guerrilla fighter (and former FARC leader) Karina.”
The museum also holds workshops to help the recovery of the survivors, who have endured one of the conflicts that has claimed the highest number of victims on the planet. Additionally, the workshops raise awareness that sharing pain can serve as a therapy for initiating reconciliation processes with the perpetrators.
In 2014, these activities will receive greater support from the Colombian government and shine a brighter light on the conflict’s survivors, Adriana Rodríguez, the museum’s communications director, said.
“We as victims have started to think that those who killed our loved ones are also human beings and also have conflicts just like us,” Arias said. “They taught us that we want to join them for one day so they can feel – from the bottom of our hearts – that we forgive them.”
But Rodríguez added the museum’s unique features require its administration to gain the victims’ trust, as they still feel at risk.
“We’re an atypical case because these memory spaces are normally developed during the post-conflict period,” Rodríguez said. “We’re talking about memory and stories amid the conflict, which makes us unique. In addition, these memories must be based on legal truths so that when prosecutors or other entities need them, we can collaborate.”
Throughout the museum’s gardens, which are filled with medicinal plants and trees planted by victims, guides recount the details of their ordeals to tourists and students.
Each of the dozens of trees and plants represents a victim’s life.
More than 900 plaques with the names of victims also are in the garden, reinforcing the importance of the stories that are shared.
Outside the museum, devices with speakers and motion detectors are used to air the testimonies of Colombians affected by the crimes committed against their loved ones.
Interactive spaces help visitors find elements that allow them to understand the factors and phenomena of violence and identify the forms of victimization that still are occurring in different parts of the country.
“The visit has allowed us to meet these wonderful people who have taught us through their firsthand experience that we’re not isolated from the violence, that any of us could experience this,” Alicia Carrillo, an 18-year-old student, said. “The visit also teaches us that forgiveness is essential for us truly to achieve peace.”
Art as a liberating agent
The museum, which is in Medellín’s Bicentennial Park, is adjacent to the popular Tree of Life sculpture by Leobardo Pérez. The piece was built in 2012 with the smelting of 27,398 weapons collected during the disarmament process in the city.
For the museum’s administration, art is a powerful tool through which the victims can express themselves, so free art workshops are held regularly.
The Casa de la Memoria also develops ongoing exhibitions by artists whose work focuses on the violence in Colombia, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Among these works is Luigi Baquero’s En el cielo cabemos todos (There’s room for all of us in heaven). The piece is the result of workshops held by the artist for the female victims of a 2013 displacement in Medellín’s La Loma neighborhood.
During the United Nations-Habitat World Urban Forum, which will be held in Medellín from April 5-11, the museum will feature special programming.
“We’re going to have several temporary exhibitions, as well as the ‘Basta Ya’ (Enough Already) exhibit, which is the report conducted by the National Center of Historical Memory about the situation of the victims in Colombia,” Rodríguez added.
Among other events taking place during the forum at the museum, which will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. those days, will be the screenings of short films, documentaries and music videos about urban conflict, as well as a tribute to Nelson Mandela.