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Digging up the dead

Colombia is excavating its civil war dead for the first time — sometimes by going into active war zones.

MARIMONDA ALTA, Colombia — After a taxing, three-hour hike into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Sandra Vargas spotted her family’s abandoned farmhouse — and the makeshift cemetery in the backyard.

It was here, on Jan. 6, 1991, that guerrillas executed her brother, Jose de Jesus Vargas, and ordered their parents to inter him.

Now, accompanied by forensic anthropologists, Sandra Vargas had returned to extract the remains of her brother and give him a proper burial. “I’ve always wanted to do this but never had the chance,” Vargas said as the search team began turning over dirt. “I’ve been waiting for 18 years.”

The waiting is over for legions of Colombians whose loved ones were killed in the country’s 45-year-old war. The ongoing conflict pits leftist guerrillas against government troops and right-wing paramilitary death squads but most of the victims are civilians.

The excavations began in 2005 after thousands of paramilitaries disarmed. In exchange for lighter prison terms, the militia commanders — who ordered thousands of killings — had to confess their crimes and provide information on where the dead are buried.

So far, forensic anthropologists have uncovered the remains of nearly 2,500 people. But their work is just beginning. More than 21,000 noncombatants have been officially registered as disappeared with some cases dating back to 1974.

Other victims were targeted by the guerrillas and the Colombian army. In fact, there are so many pending cases that the government’s 15 teams of forensic anthropologists have narrowed their focus to sites where they have a clear idea of the identities of the dead in order to return the remains to relatives.

“For the families, it helps bring closure,” said Fernan Gonzalez, a Roman Catholic priest and a member of a government-appointed reconciliation commission that is putting together a history of the war.

Unlike similar efforts in Bosnia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru and Argentina, which were carried out once the hostilities had largely ended, some of the excavations in Colombia are taking place in active war zones.