BOGOTA — Little by little, one killing after another, Colombia's long entrenched civil conflict cost Carmen Tulia Ortega most of her family, leaving her with nothing but the brave face she somehow manages to still put forth.

Between 1997 and 2007, rightwing paramilitaries murdered 14 of her family members. The bodies of some of the victims have yet to be found. It is a bloodbath she refuses to forget, even if, at age 78, she is a bit fuzzy on some of the dates and places.

A few weeks ago Ortega, who most call 'Carmen Tulia,' came face-to-face with one of the people responsible for the killings: former paramilitary chief Arnubio Triana Mahecha, aka Botalón. The meeting took place in one of the Justice and Peace courts Colombian authorities set up to implement a 2005 initiative known as the Justice and Peace Law, which was designed to facilitate the demobilization of right-wing paramilitaries involved in mass murders in the 1990s and beyond.

During the encounter, Botalón asked her to forgive him for killing one of her nephews. Enraged, she refused. "There are things one can forgive. Many things," she says. "But what they did to us, no ... I would rather die. Or they can shoot me. Those who say they can forgive haven't experienced what I've had to live through."

Two of Carmen Tulia’s three sons also fell victim to the half-century-old internal war. For eight years, she looked out of the window, waiting for Luis Ángel, a police sergeant, and Luis Fernando, a dentist, to return to the family home in La Dorada, in north-central Colombia. They were kidnapped in 2001. She found out they had died from their murderer, Alejandro Manzano, or Chaqui, who tortured them for three days before burning, dismembering and throwing their bodies into a river. Through a screen, he told Carmen Tulia there was no way her sons could ever be found now. 

She says people can get over the death of a parent, or a sibling. "But of a child? Impossible. And I say that as a Catholic." Carmen Tulia thanks the Virgin Mary that she at least knows what happened to her sons. She had been praying incessantly to the Virgin when state prosecutors called her. "I thought they would tell me where they were, because for me they were still alive. That is when this Chaqui man told me all the atrocious things he had done to them. I shouted at him every foul, horrible thing you can imagine," she says. 

Taken away one at a time

For Carmen Tulia, the war began years earlier, when leftist guerrillas killed her father. She dismisses that loss with a gesture, because of how long ago it took place. At the forefront of her mind are more recent events, a heart-breaking saga that began on Aug. 24, 1997, when her only brother, José Alberto Ortega, was shot in the head three times outside a church in Norcasia, Caldas. The next year one of her in-laws was murdered in the district of Marquetalia.

The worst was yet to come. On Aug. 22, 2001, Luis Ángel and Luis Fernando, disappeared. The latter ran a rural spa in Los Barrancos, 20 minutes from La Dorada. Six men "armed to the teeth" went to the spa to take Luis Fernando away. Unable to find him, the men began to ask around. "That's when another man, a sneak, told them [Luis Fernando] wasn't there but that his brother was." Luis Ángel was eating breakfast when the armed men found him and hauled him away. 

Shortly afterwards, when Luis Fernando learned about what happened, he went home to his mother and asked for some money she had won in a lottery. He asked her several times to pray. He then went looking for the paramilitaries of the Omar Isaza Front, which was then terrorizing six districts of the Caldas and Tolima departments. The group was led by Wálter Ochoa Guisao, aka El Gurre.

The criminals demanded 25 million pesos (the equivalent today of approximately $12,000) to free Luis Ángel. In reality, the whole thing was a trap — a punishment for not having paid protection money. For three days, her sons were tortured on an estate known as El Japón, a 600-hectare property owned by a drug dealer named Jairo Correa Alzate, the cousin of the then mayor of La Dorada, César Alzate.

After three days, Carmen Tulia sought out the mayor, who spent 12 hours trying to determine had happened. When she spoke to him later, however, the mayor offered her a boat and fuel to "go find them down the river," she says. "He already knew they were dead."

'Tulia the Brave' 

She took the boat but found nothing. Afterwards she began to receive threats. "They phoned me but nobody spoke," she says. She later went to the judiciary, but three men stopped her on the street. They called her "an old whore" and said that if she kept "gossiping" she would get the same treatment as her sons. Eventually took her two grandsons and one remaining son and left town, moving to Manizales. 

In February 2002, Carmen Tulia went to Bogota, where she began to recycle trash alongside other Colombians displaced by the conflict. She aged because of that work, she says. In August that year another in-law, a man named Faber Zea Quintero, "was taken out of bed at six in the morning." He hasn't been seen or heard from ever since. Four months later a nephew was murdered.

A paramilitary known as Roque ordered that killing, apparently because the nephew had repaired cars belonging to leftist guerrillas. Roque told the nephew not to enter Norcasia. The nephew ignored that instruction and was soon afterwards gunned down in front of his wife. On Feb. 17, 2003, paramilitaries murdered another nephew, John Ortega. That was the crime for which Botalón recently apologized to Carmen Tulia, saying he had been told the target was "with the guerrillas." Two more in-laws, then an uncle of one of the nephews, a butcher, were killed that year. And in 2006, a distant relative, Jorge Santamaría, disappeared "and is still missing," she says.

Carmen Tulia struggles with details and even whole chunks of these 14 tragic stories. Her fear today is for her 12 grandchildren. "In the last court session Botalón asked me if my grandchildren were grown up. I said yes but they don't live here. Like I was going to tell the shameless bandit where they are so he could go and kill them."

She spends her days in the Justice and Peace court, facing down paramilitaries. She keeps busy by studying, taking whatever kinds of classes she can find. "Either that or I'll go crazy ... thinking about my sons all day." No amount of pain has bent her upright demeanor, and she proudly explains the nickname people have given her: Tulia the Brave. One has to be, to speak up in Colombia.