Enforced disappearance is an international crime, a human rights violation, an endless tragedy, and permanent pain. The family member of a disappeared person will always know exactly how many days their loved one has been absent, and each day they imagine possible and impossible scenarios. They dream about whether their loved one is alive, they ask themselves if their loved one is okay, if they have food, but even more, each day they imagine a different possible death, according to the testimony of a mother who continues her search. Enforced disappearance is psychological torture and a tragedy. Until the disappeared individual is found there will always be doubts, questions, regrets, and a lot of hope. “What happened? Where are they?” These are questions that hang in the air along with their pictures, with the stories about who they were, what they liked, and that last time they were seen alive.
The Peace Agreement offered a lot of hope to the relatives of reportedly disappeared individuals through the creation of the Search Unit for Disappeared Individuals (UBDP, in Spanish).
Enforced disappearance has been invisibilized in Colombia, but the numbers are chilling: since Omaira Montoya was registered as a disappeared person in 1977, 82,998 individuals have been forcibly disappeared. In addition to this first group are the cases of extrajudicial executions, also known as “false positives,” and kidnappings. This week, between 26 and 28 August, an event was held to recognize the women and relatives who are “searchers” – as the women who look for their family members are now called. The event was held in the context of the “Truth Gatherings” organized by the Truth Commission and UBPD. Over 400 women and relatives came together from different regions of the country, women who were exiled, and victims’ organizations. They shared and exchanged experiences, and more importantly made visible this tragedy that has so often been invisibilized. We listened to the testimonies of individuals who have been searching, some for over 40 years. They talked about how enforced disappearance has been used as a terror strategy against people who seek truth, justice, or just because they thought differently.
Yanette Bautista participated. Her sister, Nydia Erika, was disappeared today 32 years ago. Nydia Erika was an M19 militant, but as her sister Yanette says, “if she committed a crime, we expected her to be arrested and taken before a judge who would try her respecting due process, not that she would be kidnapped, tortured, and disappeared.” From day one, she and her father took to the streets with a photo of Nydia Erika, to look for her. Her remains were found three years later, thanks to the confessions of an Army member. Then, the long journey to access truth and justice began. In 1995, for the first time a Human Rights Delegate from the Inspector General’s Office, Hernando Valencia, ruled against four military members who were removed from the XX Brigade for their role in Nydia Erika’s enforced disappearance. The ruling forced the Delegate Inspector into exile because of threats and accusations.
Later, Yanette and Nydia Erika’s family went into exile due to the threats and repercussions of their efforts to find justice and truth. They returned to Colombia ten years ago and continue seeking justice and truth, as they have not received a response from the Supreme Court of Justice on the Extraordinary Appeal presented on 30 August 2014. The Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation accompanies over 300 families throughout the country who are also victims of enforced disappearance.
During the recognition ceremony, information was shared on the different impacts suffered by the families’ who are victims of enforced disappearance. There are psychological impacts generated by imagining, each day, what could have happened, the incessant search without knowing where to turn, the guilt felt by the surviving family; as well as health impacts including depression, sleep disorders, and illnesses which are somatic symptoms of the pain, among many others. There are also impacts on the family, as they are not always in agreement about the search and there can be accusations among the family itself. The prior doesn’t even take into account the economic challenges that can be generated in the home, often led by women who can no longer maintain the family as they had. The women often face gender-based discrimination, in addition to administrative obstacles, such as the freezing of bank accounts and goods, officially the disappeared individuals are not “alive or dead.” There are also emotional impacts when their dreams and life projects are destroyed. Regarding the social fabric, those who search for loved ones are constantly stigmatized and receive little support as the threats against them create fear.
Many who have searched for their loved ones have also been disappeared. One example is the case of Ángel Quintero and Claudia Monsalve, members of the Medellín chapter of the Association of Relatives of Victims of Enforced Disappearance (ASFADDES, in Spanish). Both had suffered the impacts of the war and political activism first hand, as well as forced displacement and disappeared relatives. The last time Ángel and Claudia were seen alive was on 6 October 2000. Ángel decided to accompany Claudia to her house after an ASFADDES event, and two men in a motorcycle intercepted them and forced them into a truck. This incident had a huge impact on PBI, as Ángel and Claudia had been accompanied by PBI up to their disappearance. After PBI accompanied the families in their search, however, they have yet to find answers or Ángel and Claudia. Ángel’s family went into exile due to the threats, and his daughter, Adriana, was at the event. She shared her experience in exile and the impacts of that pain but also stated that she will continue searching until he is found and until they know the truth about his disappearance.
As a Truth Commissioner stated, the pain of disappearance can become a motor to clarify the truth, “the affection for a loved one can be turned into an awareness of and fight for human rights.” The women “searchers” and family members of disappeared individuals have come together and they never tire of shouting “they were taken alive, we want them back alive.” They defend their right to know and they defend the Peace Agreement and its transitional justice mechanisms, so they can finally “live with respect, dignity, and equality,” as they stated. They also fight against silence. As participants at the event emphasized, Colombian society’s silence and indifference in the face of this tragedy has been extremely painful. Colombia is the country with the highest number of disappeared people, between 80,000 and 120,000 people have suffered this human rights violation. And the families continue to fight so that this strategy of terror, which ripped their life apart, is recognized. This week is to recognize the women and relatives who continue their search, it is a week to remember all the victims of enforced disappearance internationally. However, news arrived that the Attorney General’s Office does not recognize the disappearances during the November 1985 take over of the Palace of Justice, in spite of an IACHR ruling against the State for these disappearances. This new message revictimizes and hurts the victims who have been fighting for the truth about what happened over 30 years ago.
When commemorating the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance, it is important to recognize the pain, the fight to continue searching, and to support the victims and their families to achieve truth, recognition, and dignity.
Nathalie Bienfait and Sophie Helle
 El Espectador: En Pasto se reconocerá la labor de las mujeres que buscan a desaparecidos, 26 August 2019
 CNMH: En Colombia 82.998 personas fueron desaparecidas forzadamente, 23 February 2018
 Ibid.; See the testimony of her brother Alejandro Valencia in El Espectador: El comisionado de la Verdad que ha sufrido de cerca la desaparición forzada, 28 August 2019
 Caracol: No hubo desapariciones forzadas en la Toma del Palacio de Justicia, según la Fiscalía, 27 August 2019