The disappeared

Few happy endings, but in some cases justice is being seen to be done.

To date, and most often at the hands of military dictatorships and civil war, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have vanished off the face of the earth.

Presumed dead, their families continue searching for remains that may never be found. In “The disappeared of Guatemala: a family’s search for their murdered son” (The Guardian, 14 June 2018), Nina Lakhani highlights the case of 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen:

“An estimated 45,000 civilians were forcibly disappeared during Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict, including 5,000 children who, like Marco Antonio, were snatched and never returned. The whereabouts of most victims remains a torturous mystery for their families.

The armed forces and allied paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of violations during the conflict, which includes more than 150,000 murders in addition to the disappearances, according to the post-war Commission for Historical Clarification.

Indigenous Mayans accounted for 83% of the victims. For Mayans, the burial ritual represents a crucial step between life and death. Mayans believe that until this has taken place, the deceased cannot enter the spiritual world and the survivors will be tormented by their frightened spirits.

The state has shown little interest in tackling this anguish despite various international court rulings. A civil society initiative to establish a national commission to search for the disappeared has been blocked by congress since 2006.

Instead, the search has been left to courageous families, backed by tenacious prosecutors and scientists who have vowed to uncover the truth.”

The story is common and many countries are confronting similar tragic situations. Here is a short list: Algeria, Argentina, Bosnia, Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Rwanda, Uruguay, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia…

Until fairly recently, such crimes were covered up by individuals as well as the state and, if discovered, amnesty was rapidly granted for political reasons – often with the connivance of western powers that had a vested interest in a particular country. Impunity was the name of the game.

Fortunately, things are slowly changing. As barrister Geoffrey Robertson (distinguished human rights lawyer and advocate for global civil liberties) underlined in Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice (1999):

“This is why it has been the great achievement of international law, at the close of the twentieth century, to lift the veil of sovereign statehood far enough to make individuals responsible for the crimes against humanity committed by the states they formerly commanded, while at the same time developing a rule that those states have a continuing duty to prosecute and punish them, failing which another state or the international community may bring them to justice.”

In 2013, the Guatemalan military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison. The case against him focused on successive massacres that took the lives of almost 1,800 indigenous men, women and children. The conviction was later overturned, although a retrial was under way when the general died. In 2018, four former high-ranking Guatemalan military officers – once considered untouchable – were also convicted of crimes against humanity.

Perhaps no one knows where Marco Antonio is buried. But as those responsible for similar crimes are brought to justice, a sense of guilt and remorse may compel others to speak up.


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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