Rios de Vida y Muerte is an investigation based on collaborative work and data journalism to reconstruct the memory of victims of enforced disappearance whose bodies, presumably or effectively, were thrown into rivers during the Colombian armed conflict. The goals of the investigation were 1) the creation of two databases: the first one contains information of the rivers that were used to disappear victims and, as of today, includes over 40 inputs that were mapped; and the second one presents the cases of victims who were murdered and thrown into the rivers. Both of the databases are going to be expanded as the projects grows; and 2) the writing of stories that came from the analysis of the data, as the ones published about the two rivers that presented the most cases: Magdalena and Cauca. Until now, we have published 11 stories.
This project makes an approach from the journalism to the reality of the victims of the disappearance from the testimonies of their relatives, the inhabitants of the banks of the rivers and specialized officials. This investigation is intended for the people who are still looking for their relatives and those who lived conflict in their regions, for the civil society who are looking for verifiable information about forced disappearance, but mainly for the entities and institutions that are in charge of finding the missing persons, such as the Unidad de Búsqueda de Personas dadas por Desaparecidas, UBPD (Unit of Search for Disappeared Persons), an entity created after the signing of the Peace Accord, which already requested us to provide our databases in order to create context and search protocols.
In 9 routes, 18 journalists traveled through the riverside municipalities, from spring to mouth, collecting information through testimonies or private files to feed the databases. Also to record how the practice of throwing bodies to the rivers changed in different ways the lives of its inhabitants: displacements, presence of armed groups that still exercise fear, fishermen who left their work for fear of extracting \”contaminated fish\” and communities that refuse to forget the disappeared, creating monuments, guarding mass graves or cemeteries where unidentified bodies are buried and strengthening around organizations that defend their rights.
In addition to the report stage, two workshops were held in Montería and Barrancabermeja, cities near rivers where forced disappearance has been a common practice. In these activities, 20 victims relatives were invited to build their testimonies, which became the main source for the database that includes information about the disappeared persons.
Ríos de Vida y Muerte has a humanitarian purpose and is funded by international cooperation resources through the Deutsche Welle Akademie and the German Cooperation. For this reason, it does not require a monetization plan.
What makes this project innovative?
We are convinced that the use of databases with humanitarian purposes that could provide credibility to the victims’ testimonies is innovative. We gave a central role to the victims, not only as the protagonist sources of the stories, but also as authors of the publications and participants in the workshops. The profiles published in Ríos de Vida y Muerte are the product of an innovative methodology that seeks mainly to support and guide the victims to tell the stories of the disappearance of their relatives and all the factors that have been unleashed until the present. Besides from using data collections and journalism techniques, we used methods from the social sciences, such as social cartography and focus groups, so we’d have more reliable sources of information. In Colombia it is estimated that 80,514 people were disappeared for reasons related to the armed conflict between 1958 and 2014. However, only 4,453 human bodies, or what remains of them, have been delivered to their families. It has never been a priority, in this country, to find the missing persons. This is why it is innovative and important to investigate this subject and to provide information to help families find their loved ones, giving a context to provide better understanding of what happened to them. Investigating and telling stories of forced disappearance in the rivers is not recurrent in the media of Latin America. In Colombia, it is also a difficult subject to work because many areas are still strongholds of the same illegal armed groups that committed the crime. In addition to this, the methodology used in Ríos de Vida y Muerte contains multimedia content, mapping of the cases of disappearance or the most important facts of the stories.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
Rather than setting goals based on metrics, we held as a paramount purpose to reach the audiences we intended to reach, such as the organizations that are in charge of finding the missing persons and the victims’ relatives who are still looking for them. We believe we achieved that goal since the UBPD requested us to provide them with the databases we constructed and the victims’ relatives have reached us to give us their testimonies by their own account. At the same time, the information and methodology used is an important reference that can be used and replicated by journalists and media that investigate both cases of forced disappearance and armed conflict in a broad sense. This occurs mainly through the two public launching events of the publications -the first on May 16th 2018 with 93 attendees and the second will be held on April 10th (to date, we have a list of 300 attendees and the expected attendance is 100 participants)-, most of them journalists. It should be noted that the second part of the investigation in the Cauca river was aired since March 15th, a month before the launching event. As of metrics and audience engagement, the project has had 17,435 total visits so far and 13,693 unique visits. The average session duration is 00:02:17, which shows the same time of reading a story In social networks, Facebook posts achieved an approximate range of 15 people organically with a 3-day impact publication, reaching approximately an audience of between 55 and 100 people. In the case of Twitter, an interaction by publication was more than 8, with peaks of 15 and 20.
Source and methodology
Before starting the investigation, and as preparation for the reporting stage, we held a workshop with journalists from the regions in which these events occurred, experts in forced disappearance, experts in the creation of databases and experts in web design, in which we outlined the methodology we would use during the investigation. This makes the project special because during this workshop every aspect of the investigation was planned. After that, in april 2017, 5 journalist travel across the Magdalena River throughout 4 provinces or departments to find the stories of the places that saw the bodies travel for the river for decades. We also create the database of the rivers where bodies were thrown. That exercise took 2 months and we registered more than 40 rivers, each one with a complete context of the violence of the riverside municipalities. Also, we wrote the first 4 features. As of November 2018, in a second stage of the investigation, the team began 6 tours (of six days each) throughout 8 provinces or departments. Teams made up of two reporters, a videographer and -on one occasion- a forensic anthropologist interviewed relatives of the victims of the disappeared, local authorities in charge of recovering the bodies and keeping records, leaders of communities fighting against large multinationals and the government to protect and investigate areas where apparently some corpses lie, inhabitants who turned the rescue of the bodies into a source of work, owners of lands that were used illegally and forcibly by armed groups to throw the victims into the rivers, even binnacles of people who live close to the rivers and became the only records of descriptions of bodies that once floated near their homes. In the journeys, different sources georeferenced places where victims disappeared or were found. These data, added to other documents such as photographs, were not only used as resources for publications, but also as records that were delivered to state entities to support their research. On the other hand, the workshops were held with relatives of victims of enforced disappearance whose loved ones are presumed to have disappeared in rivers. These meetings were conceived as safe spaces for family members to tell their story, to reduce the possibilities of future revictimization and to give greater strength to the voices of the victims so that they could express emotions and feelings regarding the forced disappearance. The storytelling was co-constructed between the family member and the journalist, using as sources the material previously worked by the family member (writings, photographs, diaries, official documents and various archives of victims preserved over the years), and the interviews during the meeting. At the end of this exchange relationship, the victims had a space to be heard and a place on the website in homage to their family member. This database is a space for other victims of disappearance to send their stories and to make visible the cases of their relatives (http://rutasdelconflicto.com/rios-vida-muerte/?q=desaparecidos. English translation: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1YWRWoGIDDk7D5DnthY_7f37CdREOP5wd). The methodology of the workshops included meditation, writing and content reading activities on overcoming the trauma and the relationship they have had with the river.
Álvaro Avendaño - videographer David Riaño - journalist Carol Sánchez - Journalist Constanza Bruno - Journalist Juan Gómez - Journalist Lía Valero - Journalist Nicole Acuña - Journalist Alejandro Ballesteros - web development / design Óscar Parra - Editor Ginna Morelo - Editor Blanca Giraldo - Editor Juan Carlos Granada - Journalist Kevin García - Journalist Laura Sánchez - Journalist María Isabel Naranjo - Journalist Ricardo Cruz - Journalist Lina Álvarez - Journalist Ivonne Rodríguez - Journalist Walter Hernández - Journalist Daniel Suárez Pérez - Project manager.