As November begins, much of Colombia is fast forwarding to December festivities. But this month has a significance of its own. The first “puente” of the month marks All Souls Day, while Nov. 2 is celebrated in Mexico as the Day of the Dead.
And in the Magdalena Medio town of Puerto Berrío November is dedicated to the lost souls of purgatory. Every night at midnight this month in the town on the banks of the Magdalena River a gaunt eerie looking man known as the animero, or keeper of the souls, will walk through the cemetery ringing a bell, a solitary candle casting long shadows over the graves. It’s his job to rouse the souls trapped in purgatory, take them for a walk and call on the townsfolk to pray for them.
Devotees follow behind him, mumbling Our Fathers and Hail Marys as they walk the dark streets till 2 a.m. Those souls, it is said, grant protection and favors to their followers, but can curse them just as quickly if they feel betrayed.
It’s a peculiar ritual in a town that has seen more than its share of Colombia’s lost souls, which include more than 30,000 people forcibly disappeared throughout the different cycles of country’s violent wars since 1977, victims of every side of the conflict. Most are presumed dead, buried in clandestine graves throughout the country. A massive effort to dig up those graves has uncovered 5,590 bodies.
Many others were discarded into Colombia’s massive rivers in an ultimate act to try to erase their existence. Over the years, however, hundreds of remains have washed ashore on the river banks. Impossible to identify, the bodies are filed away in funeral niches, each one marked N.N., for ningun nombre (or no name).
In most of Colombia’s cemeteries the N.N. pavilion is the plainest, most abandoned area. With no one to mourn them, the N.N.s are quickly forgotten. But in Puerto Berrío the N.N. niches are among the most visited. Those souls, it is said, grant protection and favors to their followers in gratitude for prayers. The more pain they have endured, the more forlorn they are, the more the more grateful they are. And the N.N.s who wash up near the port town, people figure, must have suffered greatly.
Taking pity on the dead who have no one to mourn them, many devotees of the lost souls “adopt” N.N.s, praying to them and asking them for favors: the winning numbers of the lottery, the survival of a child through a devastating illness. They visit their N.N. frequently, leaving flowers or simply a plastic cup of water to quench the thirst of purgatory. Once the lottery ticket has been cashed, once the child has been healed, people fix up the tombs of their N.N. in gratitude, placing a grey marble plaque on the niches, or painting them bright colors with the words “Thank-you N.N. for the favors granted”. Often, devotees are so grateful they baptize their N.N.s with fictitious names sometimes offering their own surname to the soul who helped them.
Investigators are making their best efforts to match unclaimed bodies to reports of disappearances but the going is slow. Less than half of the bodies found have been positively identified and handed over to their families. Thousands of others continue the long and painful agony of not knowing what became of their loved ones, unable to fully mourn them until their remains appear.
Sadly the “disappeared” lost souls of purgatory extend far beyond Colombia’s borders. Argentina and Chile’s dictatorships made “desaparecido” a household word. Officials are still digging up the remains of the disappeared from Peru’s dirty war. And the hunt is on in Mexico for the 43 young men who vanished after being hauled off by police, in Iguala in September. They have been presumed dead but chillingly investigators looking for the students have turned up dozens of other bodies in at least 12 clandestine graves.
As the animero and devotees in Puerto Berrío begin their nightly processions through the town this month may it give the lost souls of the disappeared some peace.