To take without echo: a brief history of disappearance

Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik
January 13, 2015

They wanted to teach others to read.

Now, in the Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa, their desks rest empty. Their homes, blighted by sleepless nights.

The streets carry their brothers and sisters, who wield words of indignation in their hands:

“They were taken alive – we want them back alive.”

“There will not be enough graves to silence us all.”

“Fear frightens us but does not paralyze us.”

“What does a country that sows the dead harvest?”

And beyond their cries, forensic examiners sleuth the earth, our enormous Earth, which holds thousands, unaccounted for, alone.


Every year, millions of people go missing. Some stop relaying news.  Some are cast away by floods. Some are trafficked. Others are abducted  and detained by political forces, who refuse to acknowledge their fate  or location. Cut off from the world, many of them never reappear,  becoming what writer Eduardo Galeano called the “dead without tombs, the tombs without names.”

Dispossessed of information, their families languish in the macabre  silence of unknowing, desperate to exhume any shard of truth about their  loved ones. They scour hospitals, garrisons, police stations, detention  centres, prisons, morgues, fields, sewers, rivers, and landfills,  impelled by the unbearable urge to find answers, to decipher what has  happened.

But their anguished questions fall on deaf desks, to be rapidly  repelled by bureaucrats fluent in the language of enforced obfuscation.  In Timor-Leste, Indonesian authorities regularly disappeared those  suspected of collaborating with Timorese guerrillas. When probed by  family members, officials suggested  that the disappeared had “gone hunting”, “gone to school” or “gone to  Jakarta”. During the 1981 session of the Human Rights Commission,  Gabriel Martínez, the ambassador of Argentina’s military dictatorship to  the UN, spoke for ninety minutes, determined to dispel “rumours” that  his superiors had orchestrated the disappearance of thousands. Martínez  assured his colleagues that many of the “disappeared” had merely  “descen[ded] into clandestinity”.

For its perpetrators, disappearance carries a grisly logic. There are  few more potent techniques in extinguishing dissent, eliminating  undesirable opponents, or maintaining a society in submission. It is a  tactic of endless deterrence, striking dread into the hearts of  relatives, friends, colleagues and the rest of the population.

Disappearance is also the ultimate obstruction of justice, the purest  form of impunity, withdrawing individuals from the safeguards of the  law and due process. With no evidence to prosecute, there is no crime to  speak of. No warrants, no official records, no charges, no traces of  wrongdoing.

Its defining value derives from its ability to conceal, to shroud  furtive acts from the public glare; as jurist Carl Schmitt noted, “the  impulse to secrecy… is the first tendency of power.”

Jorge Videla, the dictator who ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1981,  described this crucial impulse in an interview he granted a few years  after the collapse of military rule. Videla explained the regime’s  rationale for the disappearance of thousands: “Argentine society  wouldn’t have tolerated shootings… There was no other way [of  eliminating “subversives”]… if we announce them as dead, then suddenly  the unanswerable questions come: who killed, where, how…”


It is impossible to establish the origin of enforced disappearances.  Some suggest that Indigenous genocide was its first expression:  disappearance on a collective scale. The Arawak, Caribs, Charrúa,  Parlevar, Qanqlis, Tolowa, and many other peoples, largely vanished in  the wake of colonial clearing.

Ample documentation of political vanishing however, only really emerged in the 20th century. On the 24th April 1915, 234 Armenian intellectuals and notable figures living in Constantinople were forcibly  made to disappear. In 1920s Argentina, unwanted paupers and victims of  the police were left in graves marked NN (“no name”, from the Latin non nominatus). Tens of thousands disappeared in the Spanish Civil War, and millions went missing during the Great Purge.

The first explicit and systematic practice of disappearance conducted  by the state is widely attributed to the Third Reich. In Germany and  occupied Europe, the Nazis implemented the Nacht und Nebel Erlass, a directive ordering the displacement of political opponents into the “night and fog.” The purpose of the decree was clarified in regulations signed by Wilhelm Keitel, the Chief of the German Armed Forces High Command:

[…] for crimes against the Reich the Führer thinks  that in the case of such offences life imprisonment, even life  imprisonment with hard labour, is regarded as a weakness. An effective  and lasting deterrent can be achieved only by the death penalty or by  taking measures which leave the family and the population uncertain of  the fate of the offender. The deportation to Germany serves this  purpose…

The general later explained  the decree to his subordinates: “The prisoners will disappear without a  trace. It will be impossible to glean any information as to where they  are or what will be their fate.” Over 7000 prisoners were transferred and executed.

Keitel was eventually sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trials for  war crimes. But this milestone indictment, the first in history  concerning forced disappearances, did little to abate the expansion of  the practice. Since the end of the Second World War, numerous  governments of diverse political colours have placed disappearance at  the forefront of their repertoire of repression.

No one knows how many have been made missing. The precise figures  share their unknowable fate of their subjects, but the estimates conjure  an unfathomable picture of horror:

40,000 Guatemalans during La Violencia. 40,000 across conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Over 61,000 Colombians over the last fifty years. 8,000 Salvadorans in the 1970s and 80s. More than 2,000 Chileans during Pinochet’s reign, and over 300 under Alfredo Stroessner’s tyrannical rule in Paraguay. 172 at the hands of Uruguay’s dictatorship. Over 179 in Ingushetia since 2002. 3,000-5,000 in Chechnya. Dozens in Turkmenistan. At least 7 since May 2014 in Crimea. 46,000 in Peru. 17,000 during the Lebanese Civil War. 7,000 in Algeria between 1992 and 1998. Over 30,000 in Sri Lanka. 12,000 during the Ugandan civil war. More than 2,200 at hands of security forces in the Philippines since 1985.

In Iraq, the country with the most disappearances in the world, between 250,000 and one million have vanished since the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War. At least 1,353 in Turkey since the 1980 coup led by Kenan Evren. Hundreds in Nepal during the Panchayat era (1961-1989), and over 1,300 people during the civil war between 1996-2006. After the attacks of September 11th, the US government conducted dozens of forced disappearances, cloaked in the sterile rhetoric of “extraordinary rendition”.

In Syria, forced disappearances have been a consistent hallmark of  the Ba’athist regime, ever since it seized power through the Corrective  Movement in 1970. More than 17,000 Syrians vanished throughout the 1980s, in addition to thousands who have disappeared since the breakout of protests in 2011.

In Mexico, the forty-three students of Ayotzinapa are numerically but  a strand in the country’s epidemic of missing people, which has seen  over 26,000 people  reported as missing or disappeared between 2006 and 2012, many of them  vanished by security forces and affiliated criminal bodies. And the  recent trend is but an echo of a returning past, a reminder of Mexico’s  Dirty War, when thousands of political opponents and dissidents were systematically made to disappear by the state in the 1960s and 70s.

The enforcers of disappearance seldom meet consequences for their actions. Less than fifteen  states have enshrined enforced disappearance as an autonomous crime,  and a little over forty have ratified the International Convention on  the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Only 1%  of disappearances in Mexico are even investigated. In Pakistan, the  recently approved Protection of Pakistan Act legitimizes certain forms  of undisclosed detention and grants immunity to responsible state officials acting in “good faith”.

Yet for all its heinous effectiveness, disappearance bears a profound  flaw for governments: wounds without closure create relatives without  respite. Milan Kundera wrote that “the struggle of man against power is  the struggle of memory against forgetting,” and love does not forget. In  Pakistan, the relatives of disappeared Baluch march thousands of  kilometres from Quetta to Islamabad calling for the end of abductions.  In Argentina, the Mothers of the Disappeared pace every Thursday around  the Plaza de Mayo, as they have done for thirty-seven years. In  Istanbul, the Saturday Mothers sit in silence, carnations and pictures  in hand, demanding justice for the missing. In almost every country  where governments have used disappearance, family members have united to  search together for their lost loved ones.

Many of them know they are fighting for posthumous justice, but some  remain in the aching clasp of hope. Hope – that one day the door might  open to reveal a long-awaited miracle. In Guatemala City,  a single garage light burns, as it has done for the last thirty years.  Inside, a mother and sister wait for Rubén, who is yet to come back from  university. He left the house the morning of May 15th, 1984.  Witnesses saw him forced into a car. The light stays aglow so that when  Rubén returns home, he’ll know they never stopped waiting.


Patio  29 of Santiago de Chile’s General Cementery, where the military  dictatorship hid the bodies and identities of those who it disappeared.  (Photo Credit: Ninoska Estrada).

“Mercy, mercy, for those who suffer.

Mercy, mercy, for those who weep.”

Agustín Lara – “Oración Caribe”

The Atacama Desert is the driest place on the planet. Some of its  valleys and plains have not seen rain in four hundred years. Signs of  life are sparse. With its nonexistent humidity and spectacularly  translucent sky, the desert is dotted with astrological observatories,  pointing their instruments to the heavens, working to unlock the secrets  of the stars.

Other secrets haunt the land. On October 19th, 1973, the Caravan of  Death arrived in the mining town of Calama, under orders from General  Augusto Pinochet. Twenty-six prisoners were removed from the local jail.  Their bodies were left in unmarked desert graves.

In the 2010 documentary film Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio  Guzmán’s camera follows the women of Calama, who comb the desert sands  looking for the remains of their loved ones. Their hands sift  scrupulously through the desiccated soil – a baked splinter of rock  could be a bone fragment, a tooth, a mandible, a stretch of shrivelled  skin.

Under the punishing sun, the days drag. Violeta Berríos, 70, rests on  a mound of clumped dirt. Her tired eyes seem faded – they have been  searching for a lost son for thirty years. Facing Guzmán, she exhales a  confession: “I just wish the telescopes didn’t just look into the sky,  but could see through the Earth so that we could find them.”


All by
Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik