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Colombian Journalist Urges Country to Confront Conflict

March 9, 2011

Deep in the lush Colombian jungle, a man sifts through the burnt shards that were once his home. Paramilitary forces, the distraught farmer says, had recently swooped in to punish coca-growers in this remote part of the country.

“Then they wonder why we rebel,” he bitterly adds.

This opening scene of Unwanted Witness sets the deeply human tone of the documentary, which follows Colombian journalist Hollman Morris as he reports on the Andean country’s violent conflict.

Colombia’s four decade-long conflict, pitting guerrilla groups against paramilitary forces in a struggle for land and drugs, has displaced over three million people, according to human rights groups. Unwanted Witness, filmed in 2007, zeroes in on its civilian victims – and the difficulty of collecting their testimonies.

Crimes committed by paramilitary groups are too often glossed over, said Morris, now a fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, during a recent talk and film screening at the Institute.

“This country should know the truth about all atrocities, regardless of which group committed them,” said Morris. “A journalist should never fear power – power should fear journalism.”

Morris’s intrepid reporting for weekly television program Contravía earned him awards abroad and death threats at home.

Juan José Lozano’s documentary follows the journalist as he canoes up Amazonian rivers towards violence-wrecked communities and negotiates with soldiers at roadblocks. But the camera also turns its lens on the conflict’s human toll.

Gruesome shots of victims dismembered by paramilitary groups are woven in with testimonies of pregnant women whose husbands were snatched before their eyes and never returned.  

“All of Colombia is traumatized by the war,” Morris said. “I want to see Colombia seated on the psychiatrist’s sofa. Because the patient named Colombia is still in shock.”

And as the conflict weakens, following Uribe’s crackdown on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the national psyche is entering a new stage – the posttraumatic one.

“It still happens to me when I hear the sound of a helicopter. For me, a helicopter is war,” Morris said. “I’m just one other victim. And an extremely privileged one at that.”

To overcome this collective trauma – and ensure that similar acts do not recur – the country must confront the crimes committed on its soil, he stressed.

“As Colombians, we know there are people who played football with human heads,” Morris said.  “So how does this society continue living as if nothing happened?”

The crux of the blame can be attributed to the Uribe government, he said, which undercut the voices of opposition and bolstered its links with media groups.

But Colombian society is now stirring, Morris said, and may begin to hold journalism accountable for crimes perpetrated during the conflict. “They’ll ask – where were you? Did you denounce that?” he said. “Journalism has a duty. It’s the eyes and ears of society.”

The film screening was sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Alexandra Ulmer ’11