Rapes of girls, women leave scars from Colombia war

Alina DIESTE
Zoraya (her real name has been changed for security reasons) was the victim of sexual violence by an illegal armed group in the Colombian region of Choco

Like thousands of women, Zoraya suffered sexual abuse by fighters in Colombia's civil war. But that horror is secondary to the memory of what was done to her toddler daughter.

At a year and a half old, the child became one of countless women and girls raped and abused during the chaos of the conflict.

The country is trying to move on under recent peace accords. But it is still counting the human cost of a war in which the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says rape has been used as a "weapon" to terrorize civilians.

- Child rape -

The 32-year-old Afro-Colombian woman, who asked to be identified as Zoraya rather than by her real name, says she blames herself for "not looking back" that day in 2011.

She had left her daughter at the child's grandparents' home in the northwestern town of Quibdo, but the girl wandered out, trying to follow her. She was found later in a pool of blood.

"They took her dress and her diaper off and put a stick up her anus. They punctured her intestine," Zoraya told AFP.

"When they called me and I saw the girl..." she went on, before breaking off into sobs.

The child spent a month in intensive care and lives now with "a big scar across nearly her whole abdomen," Zoraya said.

- Too little to remember? -

Zoraya went to and fro visiting the prosecutors' office until she got sick of it.

The child's attackers were never found.

Zoraya does not know whether they were members of one of the armed sides in the conflict, or just motiveless sadists swept up in a climate of violence and impunity that decades of war instilled in deprived neighborhoods like hers.

"It will mark me forever," she said.

Zoraya threw away the dress the girl was wearing that day since she refused to wear it anymore.

A psychiatrist told her he thought the child would not suffer after-effects from the trauma, but Zoraya is not sure.

"She was very little, but people have mentioned it to her and asked her about it."

- Hunger -

Like thousands of people displaced by the conflict, Zoraya lives with all her six children in fear of the gangs that still roam Quibdo, extorting money from civilians.

"Life is hard here," she says. "Often we have nothing to eat."

The father of her children has disappeared and Zoraya does not know if he is alive or dead.

- Abuse -

Since erupting in the 1960s, the war has pitted various rebel groups against state forces, right-wing paramilitary groups and drug gangs.

Zoraya fled her home after one of the armed groups threatened her in 2013. She will not say which one.

She was making breakfast when one of her sons heard boots approaching.

An armed man in camouflage whom the other men called "boss" ordered her to cook chicken and fish.

Then he tried to rape her.

"He took hold of me. He wanted to kiss me and I didn't let him. I grabbed him, I hit him in the face, I scratched him," she said.

"We fell on the floor and started wrestling" as he groped her.

Before he left the man told the family: "If you're still here when I get back this afternoon, I'll burn the house down. You've got 24 hours."

- Rape as weapon -

The ICRC said in a report on Thursday that most of the victims of sex crimes in the conflict are black and from rural communities.

"Sexual violence has been one of the most common weapons used to control civilians," says Lorena Mosquera, an ICRC health worker in Quibdo.

"It has been used like a weapon of war."

Such atrocities have "very serious" consequences, she says: unwanted pregnancies, abortions, venereal diseases, injuries, broken families and single mothers.

The rape victims range in age from one and half to 65 and also include men, Mosquera said.

The report says sexual violence "is recurrent and can affect several generations within one family."

The Colombian state has recorded nearly 17,100 women as falling victim to sex crimes in the conflict since the 1980s, it says.

But Mosquera warned that "there is a very, very high degree of under-reporting" of cases by victims who are too ashamed or frightened to speak.

- Justice -

A peace deal between the government and the leftist FARC rebel force includes a constitutional reform that will set up special courts to try the perpetrators of sexual and other atrocities in the conflict.

Zoraya and her family fled the home where the armed man had attacked her before he could come back and carry out his threat.

Terror drove them. As the man had lain on top of her, with her son watching, all Zoraya could think of was what had happened to her infant daughter.