Ten years ago I sat in a small, hot room in Trujillo, Peru with a colleague and three women each clutching a folder. They held the folders as if they contained a fortune, and we leaned forward as one by one they carefully opened their folder to show us the precious contents. There were a few old photographs and scores of documents peppered with government stamps. When they finished, each woman closed her folder, looked at us, and said “I still don’t know where he is.”
The three women were talking about their husbands, victims of enforced disappearance. Some twenty years earlier the police had taken their husbands somewhere, making assurances to their young wives that they just needed to ask them a few questions and they’d soon be home. Days, then weeks, then years went by and their husbands did not return. The women went from police station to police station, then to the prisons, the hospitals and morgues but no one could tell them where they went, or rather, where they had been taken.
As we listened to them, I watched the way they treated the folders, holding them close to their chests, caressing the documents and photos as they showed them to us. I realised why the folders were so precious t them. It was because this was all they had left of their husbands. Without them, it was as if they had never existed at all.
Enforced disappearance is one of the cruellest human rights crimes.
There is the crime against the primary victim – who has disappeared – and this is compounded by the crime committed against their families and loved ones who endure years and even decades of wondering what has happened to them.
In the vast majority of these cases, the victim has been killed but the lack of a body or even information about their fate opens the door to hope that maybe they are out there somewhere. Hope, which is something we usually view as a positive thing, is distorted into a kind of torture as their families exhaust all their resources, financial as well as physical and emotional, to try to establish what has happened.
A deliberate policy of repression and terror
The use of enforced disappearance has been a deliberate policy of many repressive governments and terrorist groups. We toured the ruins of an old military base in the highlands of Peru, where one of the only structures still standing was the furnace where bodies of prisoners had been incinerated so as not to leave a trace of evidence that they had ever been there at all. Enforced disappearance not only removes answers, but accountability along with them. A person is taken away – but there is no paperwork to prove this, no record of them being held in any specific location. It is a way of sowing terror in the population and can have a devastating impact on the emotional and psychological health of the families of the victims, who are often led to question their own sanity.
There are around 15,000 unresolved cases of enforced disappearance in Peru dating from the period of internal conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. In neighbouring Colombia, after fifty years of internal conflict the number of unresolved cases is thought to be upwards of 65,000.
The legal and emotional battle
The family’s ordeal is not just limited to trying to discover the fate of their loved one. Even when they accept the high probability that the victim is most likely deceased, it can be difficult to impossible to establish this legally. The Colombian government, for example, only recognised three American missionaries as deceased in 2007, though they had been abducted by FARC guerrillas in 1993 and were believed to have been killed in 1996.Similarly, their families had to fight for the men to be declared dead in the US courts after the State Department declined to do so without a directive from the US Embassy in Colombia and the Colombian government. This has implications for the transfer of property, for taxes, and even for the ability to remarry. Some men or women are forced to suffer the additional indignity of having to register their spouse as having ‘abandoned’ them in order to regularise a legal situation.
The need for closure, truth and reconciliation
Those three women with their folders have stayed with me over the past decade. The likelihood that they, or the thousands of others like them in Peru and Colombia, will receive answers is low. Many of the records, if they ever existed at all, have been destroyed along with the bodies. This makes truth and reconciliation processes, and court cases, when possible all the more important.
Often the only people who are in a position to share the truth are those who were directly implicated in the crime itself. Sometimes, however, there are other witnesses – guards, other prisoners, cleaning or cooking staff. It is difficult work but CSW’s partners in both Peru and Colombia have successfully resolved some cases of enforced disappearance by painstakingly retracing their steps and seeking out any and all potential witnesses. In a handful of cases they have even been able to recover the remains of the victims to return them to their families for a proper burial.
The news that their loved one is not, in fact, alive can be difficult to accept for a family that has held onto hope for decades. But ultimately it brings a kind of relief and opens the door to the important, but until that point suspended, process of grieving.
By Anna-Lee Stangl, CSW’s Senior Advocate for the Americas