The Colombian author Helena Urán Bidegain

I meet Helena Urán Bidegain on a café terrace with a view of the Spree. Not far from here, in the German Bundestag, she was employed as a research assistant for several years. The Colombian knows the history of the building, she knows about the fire in the Reichstag in February 1933.

Helena was deeply impressed that the German parliament was once set on fire. For more than 30 years ago, her own life was thrown out of hand by a burning building: In 1985, a left-wing guerrilla squad attacked the palace of justice in which her father worked in the Colombian capital Bogotá.

“The military came a few minutes later, they overreacted with tanks, with helicopters and started shooting everywhere,” she reports. “A few hours later there was also a fire in the building. Then, in the end, 100 people died.”

Death in a hail of bullets

Helena’s father, Carlos Urán, a young, progressive judge, was among the victims. He was killed in the hail of bullets between the three dozen guerrilla fighters and the more than five thousand heavily armed military. So the official information to the family. In total, eleven judges, including the President of the Supreme Court, and many civilians, died in the inferno of gunfire, explosions and flames.

The author recalls: “I was 10 years old when that happened. And right after that we had to leave Colombia. My mother was also threatened. Leaving at that age without really understanding what had happened was for me as a child pretty hard.”

There was silence in the family

Today Helena Urán Bidegain is 46 and has lived in Berlin since 2012. Before that, she studied Latin American studies and media culture in Hamburg. In the time before the study, she had moved with her mother and her three sisters again and again: first to Uruguay, then to the USA, then to Spain. Far from Colombia, where the father died so tragically.

There was silence at home about his death. “It was a big block. Nobody dared talk about it. I was in shock and quiet for many, many years. I didn’t want to feel anything, it was too painful.”

In Germany, Helena met other people who had experienced armed conflicts or dictatorships in their home countries. She realized that she was not alone with her pain.

“That’s when I began to recognize what had happened to me. I was also a victim of political violence – and I finally had to start talking about it,” she says, looking back.

Help from a courageous public prosecutor

First Helena spoke, then she began to write. Many years had to pass before a book came out of it. These were years in which the author and her family gradually realized that in 1985 everything had been very different in the Bogotá Palace of Justice. That judge Carlos Urán didn’t just die in a hail of bullets, as the authorities wanted them to believe.

The relatives of those murdered and disappeared from 1985 are still grieved and angry about the violence of the Colombian military.© picture alliance / Anadolu Agency / Juan David Moreno Gallego

A courageous public prosecutor found evidence that Helena’s father had been murdered by the military. “And then she decided to exhume my father’s body. She was able to prove that he was tortured and executed out of court.”

In the summery and cheerful atmosphere of the Berlin café, it is not easy to imagine such a brutal crime. It is difficult to understand why the Colombian military killed a judge – while claiming that they wanted to protect the judiciary from the guerrilla attack through their large-scale operation.

Eliminated as “uncomfortable voice”

Helena Urán Bidegain brushes her long, dark hair back from her face and looks thoughtfully over the Spree. Then she explains that her father worked at the Supreme Administrative Court, which was investigating human rights violations by the military at the time. He had also published articles in which he criticized Colombia’s strong militarization: “He was a very uncomfortable voice.”

The murder of Carlos Urán is not the only crime committed by the military in the Bogotá Palace of Justice. Several civilians, including court canteen employees, forcibly disappeared it. In 2014, the Colombian state was convicted of these offenses by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Memory and truth finding

In Colombia itself, the responsible military have so far been unpunished. After all, society today knows more about the terrible events of 1985. With her book “Mi Vida y el Palacio” – in German: My life and the palace – Helena Urán Bidegain has contributed to memory and the establishment of truth.

“What also influenced me was the fact that I was in Germany. At every corner you are confronted with history, with the history of that cruel time of National Socialism,” she explains. “I don’t know whether I would have written a book if I had stayed in Colombia. Germany helped me to measure what had happened to me. And that none of it was normal. I had to tell you.”

Helena Urán Bidegain: “My Life and the Palace”
Planet Colombia, 2020
currently only available in Spanish

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.