Monday, July 1, 2013

Visit with Berta Oliva - COFADEH

Sitting in the conference room at the COFADEH office,your have to look into  the faces of the dead and disappeared from the decade of the 80’s in Honduras. Photos and drawings of  the martyrs cover the walls, most of them very young faces. Downstairs there are photos of some of the new martyrs - murdered or disappeared since coup in 2009.

Berta Oliva, General Coordinator of COFADEH (Committe of the Families of the Disappeared Detainees) told our delegation the story of COFADEH’s history. Family members of the disappeared formed the organization to look for justice for their loved one and to rescue the historical memory of the dead : Neither forget nor forgive is COFADEH’s motto and Berta added to that “not until we know who we should forgive” (meaning that the perpetrators of the crimes are identified) and “until we know why we should forgive them”.

 Berta categorized the situation today as “daily emergencies, cases of life and death”  where not only are there deaths to document and follow up but every day people arriving in the COFADEH office to  document threats and attempts on their lives. Many of the victims urgently needing emergency refuge and protection. COFADEH is expending more and more resources on rescues and new cases. This has also created a tremendous back-log of cases that need more follow-up with international and judicial entities.

 She explained that 25 teachers have been assassinated sine the coup. At least six LIBRE party activists, including candidates, have been murdered since Xiomara Zelaya officially entered the race for President in July 2012.  Just days before our meeting with Berta the wife of a LIBRE candidate and another person who was with her were killed in the province of Olancho. She emphasized the incredible level of violence against campesinos since the coup -- more than 125 killed and she talked of a new emergency case in which two priests are at risk of losing their lives. When one of the priests came secretly to Tegucigalpa to avoid attack, the people threatening him showed up at where he was staying and he had to flee again.

The history of COFADEH weaves together thirty years of Honduran history. It begins with the “cold” war and U.S. military interventions against the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua and all the movements for social justice in Central America. COFADEH worked to identify the disappeared and dead, participated in exhumations, and investigated the cases. Berta told us how they uncovered the military death squads  (Battalion 316) and the involvement of U.S. and U.S. trained military men like Billy Joya in the murders and forced disappearance of Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Costa Ricans and even some North Americans like the Jesuit priest James “Guadalupe” Carney who ministered to the poor campesinos and activists on the Northern Coast. COFADEH was able to identify Joya as responsible for the brutal murderer of their first human rights case, the death of Hans Albert Madisson and at least 16 other cases.  Charges against Joya were finally filed in  Honduras and internationally  but he was able to avoid arrest.

At that time the women who founded  COFADEH’ including Berta were attacked in the press as “Crazy old women” and worse, their lives were threatened and all types of intimidation were used to try to shut them up. COFADEH didn’t shut up  and during the 80’s and early 90’s identified more than 300 cases of political murders and forced disappearances and achieved international recognition of their struggle to win justice for the victims and survivors.

During the next phase of Honduran history COFADEH continued to take on new cases as human rights violations didn’t come to an end, but were able to focus on closing the cases from the 80’s and on developing other work. Then came the military coup d’ état on June 28, 2009.  Berta described the massive violations of human rights, and repression including beatings, assassinations, rape and torture. Billy Joya reappears and is given a government position in the coup government and forced disappearances begin again.

Berta told the delegation that the theme throughout the thirty years her organizations has existed is Impunity -- crimes against humanity committed with no consequences for the intellectual or material perpetrators. Sadly she said she expects even worse days are coming and that it is hard to be optimistic given the situation and knowing the character of those in power who already organized one coup --- and are facing a victory by the resistance political party.

COFADEH and Bertha herself are also the targets of surveillance and threats but Bertha emphasized their commitment to continuing their work and called for more solidarity, more accompaniment and more international observers and attention on Honduras.

“I am only alive now because of the international solidarity from all over the world and the message that sends to those who would harm us”. “ I am also a survivor and a victim. I married for love and when I married my husband, Tomás Nativi I also married into the life of fighting for justice. He was an activist, a communist, a revolutionary. I have never been ashamed of that”.  Tomás was forcibly disappeared in 1981.

She specifically asks for more visits and delegations from all levels of international observers to start now as the oligarchy begins to increase its terror and to continue through the elections. “If we are going to make it to the 24th (November 24th is the election date) it will be because of international solidarity. It is important to have people come and actually talk to the victims of the violence and not just sit in meetings with officials”, she said.

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