The Disappeared Ones

Just imagine: Your husband goes to work one day, and never returns? Your teenage daughter goes out to visit a friend, saying “See you later!” and that is the last time you ever see her? Your mother is at home and gets a knock on the door, and when you come home, she is gone? You search and make enquiries and telephone calls. Days, weeks, months – years – pass, and you hear nothing. Life goes on around you as if nothing has happened. Can you imagine?

Today (August 30, 2015) is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

In the past, there have been notorious cases of mass disappearances; under dictatorships in Argentina and Chile, for example. During Argentina’s “Dirty War,” (Guerra Sucia) from 1976 to 1983, roughly 30,000 citizens disappeared under the brutal military regime that seized power during a period of instability. The government called it the Process of National Reorganization. They arrested, tortured and murdered thousands of dissidents suspected of left-wing activities. Hundreds of babies of the “Desaparecidos” were kidnapped and illegally adopted. After democracy was restored, Carlos Menem’s government began an investigation, discovering hundreds of secret detention centers.

Mothers marching in the Plaza de Mayo with cutouts of their "disappeared" sons. Photo by Gerardo Dell’Orto, 1990
Mothers marching in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires with cutouts of their “disappeared” sons. The mothers began their protest in front of the Presidential Palace in 1977 and their numbers grew to hundreds of women – week after week. The President apparently called them “Las Locas” (the Crazy Ones), threatened and ridiculed them, but they continued and have been a strong force for human rights.  Photo by Gerardo Dell’Orto, 1990

In Chile, thousands of citizens also disappeared under Augusto Pinochet’s military rule from 1973 to 1990; many more thousands suspected of being political dissidents were also tortured. The Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (the Chilean secret police) took many people to the Villa Grimaldi, on the outskirts of Santiago, for interrogation. Many were never seen again. In the same hemisphere, in Guatemala, Colombia and El Salvador, many, many thousands disappeared during civil wars.

There is a memorial park (Parque por la Paz) at the site of the notorious Villa Grimaldi on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile. (Photo:http://hostalprovidencia.com)
There is a memorial park (Parque por la Paz) at the site of the notorious Villa Grimaldi on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile. (Photo:http://hostalprovidencia.com)

Europe has not fared better. During World War II, the regimes of Josef Stalin in Russia and Adolf Hitler in Germany are now well known for human rights abuses, including disappearances, on a very wide scale. The Balkans conflict of the 1990s has left thousands of civilians unaccounted for and political leaders are very slow to investigate or to provide reparations to their families.

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has been seeking to identify thousands of missing people in Bosnia since the civil war.
The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has been trying to identify thousands of missing people in Bosnia since the civil war. Diggers and bulldozers tore skeletal remains apart in mass graves, destroying evidence. Twenty years after Srebenica, the families are still waiting for  “closure.” (Photo: hmd.org.uk)

Yet if you think enforced disappearances are for the history books, you are wrong. They are as much a feature of life under tyrannical governments across the world as ever; and, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon points out, not only governments are involved. Nowadays, armed extremists and terrorist groups are secretly abducting, imprisoning, torturing and murdering. Under any circumstances, the Secretary General reminds us, enforced disappearance is illegal.

And I say these human rights abusers of the past are well known “now” because yes – at the time when these things happened, society in general may have been cowed, complicit or even ignorant of what was happening. Unless their own son or daughter disappeared, of course; or unless they found themselves alone in a dank, stinking cell with a torturer. But life went on. People may not have talked about it much at all – whether out of fear, ignorance or indifference.

Despite ongoing mass protests, the Mexican government has been very slow to investigate the disappearance of 43 student teachers almost a year ago.
Despite ongoing mass protests, the Mexican government has been very slow to investigate the disappearance of 43 student teachers almost a year ago. The leader of a group searching for the students, who had discovered a mass grave in Iguala, was shot dead in Acapulco on August 10.

So now, have things improved in the 21st century? Hardly.“Governments in every region of the world, from Syria to Mexico and from Sri Lanka to Gambia may be holding hundreds or even thousands in secret detention,” says Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty. There have been over 200 forced disappearances in Bangladesh since 2009; these are only the documented ones. In many cases, men dressed in the uniforms of state security forces come to arrest people. Families seeking assistance through the state justice system have had no success. Human rights defenders are regularly harassed and threatened (and as we know, several Bangladeshi bloggers have been brutally murdered).  Amnesty highlights the tragic situation in Syria, where it estimates almost 85,000 people have been forcibly disappeared between 2011 and 2015. Back in this region, official figures say nearly 25,000 people have disappeared or gone missing in Mexico since 2007. Last year, 43 students of the Ayotzinapa rural teacher-training college in Guerrero State were ambushed and kidnapped on their way to an anti-government protest. Three or four of them were killed; the families of all the others are living in mental agony and fear.

"On July 9th, our loved ones have been disappeared, and they include 17 lawyers, their assistants, and law firm staffers, as well as 6 rights defenders," wrote a group of relatives to China's Minister of Public Security Mr. Guo Shenkun.
“On July 9th, our loved ones have been disappeared, and they include 17 lawyers, their assistants, and law firm staffers, as well as 6 rights defenders,” wrote a group of relatives to China’s Minister of Public Security Mr. Guo Shenkun in a letter dated today.

In China, there are the so-called “black jails.” These are secret locations where political enemies – disgraced officials accused of corruption – end up, under the rule of “shuanggui,” an internal disciplinary procedure. In this case the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection is in charge, operating outside the country’s legal system. Often torture is involved; confessions are needed, and information on other possible enemies of the State (read: Party). This is quite apart from journalists, civil society, non-governmental organizations, feminists and anyone else who might be deemed a threat. On July 9th, 17 lawyers, their assistants, and law firm staffers, as well as six rights defenders were taken away. They appeared on television just nine days later, having already been allegedly tried and found guilty of vague crimes. Since then, their families have heard nothing about them.

The families of the lawyers and human rights defenders wrote a letter to the Minister of Public Security today, noting:

At home we fear even knocks on the door. People at the door who claim to be checking our water meter, delivering a package, fixing water pipes are least likely robbers (if they are we can at least call 110), and most likely someone who is a disguised secret police of the People’s Republic of China, and a 110 call wouldn’t get you help. Such fear and panic do not beset these lawyers and their families only; they beset the entire Chinese society.

Here’s another letter. Way back in 1970, James Baldwin wrote the beautiful and powerful “Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis.” Angela Davis, the fierce civil rights campaigner, was in jail at the time. Apart from expressing thoughts that are incredibly relevant to the situation in the United States today, the eloquent and masterful Mr. Baldwin had this to say – I picked out a few excerpts:

You look exceedingly alone—as alone, say, as the Jewish housewife in the boxcar headed for Dachau, or as any one of our ancestors, chained together in the name of Jesus, headed for a Christian land…We know that democracy does not mean the coercion of all into a deadly—and, finally, wicked—mediocrity but the liberty for all to aspire to the best that is in him, or that has ever been…If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”

James Baldwin. (Photo: Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty)
James Baldwin. (Photo: Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty)

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