A Photographer Confronts His Family’s Tragic Past in Colombia’s War

A Photographer Confronts His Family’s Tragic Past in Colombia’s War

Andrés Cardona remembers the scenes in his family photo albums, little rectangles of memories as faded as the images themselves: birthdays, baptisms, weddings, Halloween and Christmas gatherings. Over time, these everyday moments that once filled his family’s life in Colombia went from mundane to morbid.

“From one moment to the next, I started seeing dead people, cadavers,” Mr. Cardona said. “My father’s burial, the murder of a cousin, photos of people who had been murdered during the armed conflict.”

As a photographer, Mr. Cardona, 30, was used to documenting Colombia’s bloody history as a decades-old civil war inflicted on strangers. But like so many of his countrymen, members of his family were killed after accusations that they were rebel supporters. His great-grandfather, father, mother, uncle and other family members — mostly farmers who advocated land reform and labor rights — were sentenced to summary executions at the hands of the military.

Over the last three years, Mr. Cardona has confronted his family’s history, drawing upon portraits, family pictures and re-creations of murder scenes to bridge the past to the present with the hope of making sense of — and accepting — all that happened.

“It is so easy to document another person’s pain with a camera,” he said. “But when you document yourself, that’s where I began to feel that I also lived through this and hid it. It was either I do this story or let it be forgotten. I cannot allow that. I told myself it was time, even if it hurts. But I must do it.”

By the early 1950s, the civil war that started in 1945 between conservatives and liberals had claimed his great-grandfather’s life, Mr. Cardona said. He recalled how his grandmother Maria Vargas told him that she was unable to retrieve her father’s corpse, as dogs picked at the body.

Mr. Cardona was born in San Vicente del Caguán, in Caquetá Department, but moved several times throughout childhood after his father, Hernando Cardona Vargas, and his uncle Aldemar Vargas were executed and dumped in a mass grave. They were missing for eight days, until their corpses were unearthed.

“My grandmother and mother took us with them to the military base to get their cadavers,” he said. “They took us to the battalion where the people who killed him were asked to give them a proper burial. No one could see their faces because they were disfigured by bullets and too much time had passed.”

Mr. Cardona admitted that his childhood memories were murky, but that his recollections of the burial remained vivid, as did the trips to the cemetery where he and his brother clambered atop a statue of Jesus.

When his mother, Luz Mercy Cruz, began looking into the circumstances of the double murder, she also sealed her fate. Their only offense, Mr. Cardona said, was that they supported better working conditions and guaranteed human rights. Still, in many parts of Latin America, those convictions are punishable by death.

Mr. Cardona’s mother, who supported her two children by sewing and making artisanal crafts, started getting warnings that she was being followed. Eight months after her husband’s murder, she was leading a workshop on human rights at a community gathering in the countryside, close to the mountains where guerrillas were hiding.

“The army came and surrounded the place where they were meeting,” he said. “They took out the leaders and took out my mother. They killed seven personas, saying they were linked to the guerrillas.”

To this day, he has no idea where his mother is buried.

Mr. Cardona was raised by his grandmother in Puerto Rico de Caquetá, where paramilitary forces — whose gaze he had been taught to avert — had imposed a 6 p.m. curfew for several years. He remembers hearing the noisy chaos of government bombs being dropped nearby.

One of the themes surrounding Mr. Cardona’s work about his family’s past deals with the nightmares he started having of drowning or being killed by a gunman in his home. Early in the project, he found Polaroid prints of his uncle Euclides, a guerrilla commander, dressed in a camouflage military uniform. The prints were among several photos that the family kept buried in the backyard for years.

“A lot of photos had to be buried because the paramilitaries could go into a house and search,” he said. “Who knows how many would have died if they found those pictures.”

Mr. Cardona intends to continue his project. He will also keep searching for his mother’s body. It is a painful process, he admitted, but one that is shared with countless countrymen who he said were waiting for later generations to help make sense of the country’s traumatic history.

“This project isn’t about the dead,” he said. “It’s for the living. It’s a struggle, but it’s also therapeutic and can heal. I cannot live with this pain anymore. I am not a man of hate.”

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