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International day of the disappeared: ending the silence

17-08-2011 Feature

There are 50,000 people on Colombia's registry of missing persons. The ICRC went to meet some of the families with names on that list, to find out what more could be done to help them.

Sandra

Sandra lives with her 9-year-old son Bryan in a suburb of Bogotá. The walls of her small flat are lined with proudly framed diplomas and photographs of her husband Francisco in his army uniform. Bryan sits close to his mother as she starts to tell her story. She hasn’t seen her husband since October 2008. It was five months later that she finally got the news; ”missing in action.”

Since then, Sandra has had no firm information about what happened to her husband. There have been plenty of rumours and Sandra hangs on to the hope that he might still be alive somewhere. As the months go by, she tries to keep up the pressure on the authorities to continue the investigation. But time passes slowly as Sandra tries to stay positive. ”It’s the silence that kills,” she says through her tears.

Julia

In a rural village in the northern province of Urabá, another woman weeps as she describes her last memories of her 19 year old son Luis. Julia and her husband Elias have walked hours through the forest from their smallholding to meet me here. They show me the only photo they have of their son, a small passport size picture of a smiling young man. They suspect he joined an armed group active near their home. ”Young people today listen to their friends, not their parents,” say the couple.

Nine months after Luis went missing, Julia and her husband heard that their son had been killed in a clash with the army. They have had no proof of his death and they desperately want to find out what happened to him. ”If he is really dead, I want to bury his body and put flowers on his grave,” Julia weeps.

Two women, one story

Julia and Sandra live hundreds of kilometres apart but they share a common story. They are among the thousands of families in Colombia going through the agony of not knowing the fate of a spouse, child, or parent. Without proof of death or a body to bury and mourn, many surviving families hang on to the hope that their relative might be alive somewhere.

There are now close to 50,000 names on Colombia's National Registry of Missing and Disappeared Persons. These people disappeared during the country’s decades of conflict. More recently, many previously unknown clandestine graves have been revealed, resulting in a steadily lengthening list of unclaimed, unknown and unidentified dead. Every week more bodies are discovered, each one corresponding to a family, somewhere, waiting for news.

Recovering, identifying and handing over the remains to families presents the authorities with an enormous challenge. Colombia is one of the very few countries attempting to investigate cases of missing persons while conflict is still ongoing. In addition to fighters who died in combat, but whose fate couldn't be clarified, the conflict in Colombia saw the use of forced disappearances on a massive scale. Civilians and captured enemies were killed and then “disappeared” cut into pieces, buried in clandestine graves or thrown in the river, in order to increase the terror for their friends and relatives. Guilhem Ravier is the ICRC's expert on missing and disappeared persons in Colombia and he acknowledges that this exacerbates the difficulties. ”There’s no doubt that many families are too frightened to come forward,” says Guilhem. ”The numbers are certainly much higher than those on the official lists.”

A will to help

For many families, the search will end at Colombia's National Forensic Institute in Bogotá, where the remains of unidentified bodies are brought for identification. On the ground floor of this tower block, anxious families complete exhaustive documentation and apply for information. High in the building, teams of experts perform a multitude of tests, examining skeletal remains and clothing fragments, and carrying out DNA analysis. There is a very real will to respond to the thousands of requests for identification, but the sheer scale of the task seems overwhelming. ”More and more people are reporting the loss of a family member, and more and more bodies are being recovered. We could work 24 hours a day,” says the Institute's director, Dr Carlos Eduardo Valdes Moreno.

Guilhem believes that things could be made easier for the families. ”The identification process is long and complex,” he explains, ”and it's like a maze for the families. The language is bureaucratic and hard to understand and months can go by with no information.”

The ICRC works with families in need, helping them negotiate this complex process. It also works with State institutions such as the Forensic Institute, to help them improve their response. But Guilhem is convinced that more should be done to help the families. “They need regular information, in terms they can understand, they need to be told why it takes time, what the difficulties are, what to expect. They must be treated as adults, and they need support to get them through this ordeal.”

The day after my visit, Julia and Elias are invited to the morgue. After months of uncertainty, they are shown a photograph of the body of a young man. Elias is convinced that he recognises his son, Luis. The next step will be a formal DNA test. Another three- to six-month wait. But maybe Julia will finally be granted her wish – to bury her son’s body and mourn her loss.

 

To preview and download ICRC video footage in broadcast quality, go to:

www.icrcvideonewsroom.org

(Latest footage from Colombia, where almost 50,000 people are missing)


Photos

Bogotá, Colombia. Sandra's husband Francisco is an army officer. She last saw him in October 2008, five months before he disappeared. 

Bogotá, Colombia. Sandra's husband Francisco is an army officer. She last saw him in October 2008, five months before he disappeared. Here she is talking to Guilhem Ravier, the ICRC’s expert on missing persons in Colombia.
© ICRC / J. Powell

Urabá, Colombia. Elías and Julia's son Luis went missing following a clash with the Colombian army. 

Urabá, Colombia. Elías and Julia's son Luis went missing following a clash with the Colombian army.
© ICRC / J. Powell

National Forensic Institute, Bogotá, Colombia. A specialist examines and documents skeletal remains. This is a vital part of the identification process. 

National Forensic Institute, Bogotá, Colombia. A specialist examines and documents skeletal remains. This is a vital part of the identification process.
© ICRC / J. Powell