Meeting to share their pain and seek answers
“Who wants to know the truth?” asked one of the 23 participants during a group exercise at a workshop for relatives of missing persons organized by the ICRC. Those who answered “yes” were supposed to go to one side of the room; those who said “no” to the other. Everyone ended up walking to the “yes” side, in silence.
One of them was Andrea*, who has been searching for her brother since 1990. So was Camilo, whose stepson has been unaccounted for since 1999. Claudia’s son went missing in 2004. Patricia has no news of her son since 2009. Sandra’s brother disappeared in 2011. Amparo has heard nothing from her husband since he went missing in 2012. More than two decades of searching converge in one room.
With ICRC support, the participants, who came together from 3 to 5 December, not only shared their stories but also found out first-hand what progress had been made on their cases and how to get their requests processed. Officials from the national tracing commission, the public prosecutor’s office and the national forensic institute advised them on the legal framework covering disappearance and forensic procedures. For those who had not already had it done, biological samples were taken for DNA testing and their cases were recorded in the SIRDEC database.
On top of the pain of not knowing, the formalities and the lack of replies to their enquiries make the wait even harder for families to bear. “I have dealt with various institutions over the years,” said Claudia. “Each time I hope they’ll have an answer for me, but eight years on and I’m still in the dark.” Her son went to work in another city. “One day they told us he’d been killed but we couldn’t collect his body because it was too dangerous. His wife was pregnant. Now their son is seven years old and keeps asking when he’ll meet his father.”
Yolanda, who lost touch with her son in 2009 when unidentified men dragged him from the boat he was travelling in in a rural area, shared her by now extensive experience of the administrative formalities with her new friends. “Today it’s three years and five months since my son was taken and I’ve become an expert in dealing with all the institutions. People mistake me for a State official!” she said jokingly. Underlying her words is the knowledge that, despite the many attempts to get answers through official channels, her search has not yielded results.
“Every day that goes by makes it worse, but you learn to cope,” said Claudia to Patricia, by way of consolation from someone who had been through it all before, when she saw her crying as she told her story. Both women were wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with their son’s photo and name.
Andrea, for her part, was one of the participants who had been waiting longest for news: 22 years. Her brother – then 14 – went to a neighbouring village with a friend to organize a raffle. Apparently some members of an armed group accused them of stealing and forced them to join their ranks. The only news that reached the family came three years later, when an official rang them to say that he had been captured in another city. But when they got there, they were told the information had been wrong. Since then, all the family has been able to do is try and navigate the official red tape. And wait, of course.
“He was my big brother. I used to go out with him. He’d take me everywhere. If he went to play football, I’d be his mascot. When he disappeared, it was really sad. I never went anywhere anymore,” recounted Andrea. “I grew up but never moved house. We had to stay in case he came back one day. I had two children and I’m still there, waiting for him to return, alive or dead. I cling to the hope that he’ll come back alive.”
Despite their tragic stories, the participants were glad to get a clearer understanding of the system for tracing missing persons and of the legal framework. “My mother and I are going away with a lot of useful resources to help our case. Now we know who to approach, how to deal with them and what we’re entitled to,” said Patricia’s daughter, who also attended the workshop.
*All the names have been changed.