Updated: August 31, 2021 11:22 AM GMT
A poster keeps alive the memories of loved ones on the International Day of the Disappeared held every Aug. 30. (Photo: Melanie Bleil)
My almost three decades of involvement in the advocacy for victims of enforced disappearance have given me an unforgettable rich experience of immersion with affected families from around 50 countries.
Coming from different cultures and speaking varying languages, families of the disappeared use a common language of pain and struggle. The pain of losing their loved ones is transformed into a struggle of memory against forgetting.
My heart bled every time a mother or father or son or daughter or husband or wife showed me a picture with pieces of evidence of a loved one’s disappearance as if I could resolve the case.
In desperate helplessness, I would tell myself that I would do everything possible to contribute to the eventual realization of the noble vision of a world without desaparecidos.
In their activities, families of the disappeared in Latin America shout the names of their missing loved ones. Each time a name is called, invoking the spiritual presence of their desaparecidos, they shout “Presente!”
That Spanish word manifests an insistence of the spiritual presence of the disappeared persons despite their physical absence. It is in such paradoxical presence that the imperative of immortalizing their memory compels families of the disappeared to work for truth, justice, memory and guarantees of non-recurrence.
Families of the disappeared, hand in hand with civil society organizations, never allowed the coronavirus pandemic to get in their way while honoring their loved ones
In 1981, in its founding Congress in San Jose, Costa Rica, the Latin American Federation of Associations of Relatives of Disappeared-Detainees (FEDEFAM), in their collective tribute to their seres queridos (loved ones), initiated the idea of an International Day of the Disappeared to be held every Aug. 30.
As enforced disappearances spread throughout the world, sister organizations also honor their loved ones every Aug. 30.
Three decades later, in 2011, listening to the families of the desaparecidos’ incessant call for truth and justice, the United Nations officially recognized this date as the International Day for Victims of Enforced Disappearances.
The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) and the recognition of the International Day for Victims of Enforced Disappearances are hard-earned and precious fruits of a struggle first initiated by Latin American families of the disappeared and later participated in by associations of families of the disappeared and civil society organizations.
Families of the disappeared, hand in hand with civil society organizations, never allowed the coronavirus pandemic to get in their way while honoring their loved ones.
In its goal to attain universal ratification and implementation of the ICPPED, the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances (ICAED) conducted a webinar titled "The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting" a few days ago. It was a blend of presentations from UN representatives and the poignant holding of pictures of disappeared loved ones from 20 countries across the globe.
The speakers emphasized that in face of ever-increasing cases of enforced disappearances, memory is a necessary tool to connect the past into the present in order to reach the envisioned future free from the scourge of enforced disappearances.
Maria Adela Antokoletz, a member of Argentina’s Madres de Plaza de Mayo-Linea Fundadora, said in her reflections: “We relatives of disappeared persons have had a terrible experience when it became apparent that our beloved ones were no more and would never again be with us. What we perhaps did not know was that no identity is defined forever. Our own identity as relatives would be changing as we receive new experiences. And what brings us to those experiences is memory ..."
She added: “Forgetting is rejecting our own identity; forgetting is to renounce the meaning our life has; forgetting is to make our beloved ones disappear again.”
We will keep the memory of our disappeared alive forever. Forgetting them is allowing the perpetrators to achieve their goal of erasing our loved ones from this earth
Suela Janina, a member of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, said that despite the collective efforts of the international community and victims’ associations, the universal ratification of the anti-disappearance treaty is far from sight with only 64 states parties and 98 signatories.
Several factors have hindered the complete documentation and reporting of thousands and even millions of cases of enforced disappearances. The lack of access to authorities, militarization, migration and many such impediments result in the under-reporting of cases. In its 2020 report, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances recorded 46,271 outstanding cases.
This year is the second commemoration of the event under the pandemic. In a joint statement, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances stated that the Covid-19 pandemic “has exacerbated the impact on victims of enforced disappearances and their relatives.”
Invoking the imperative of the reconstruction of the historical memory of those who were disappeared, ICAED borrowed the words of Edita Burgos, mother of disappeared Filipino activist Jonas Burgos: “We will keep the memory of our disappeared alive forever. Forgetting them is allowing the perpetrators to achieve their goal of erasing our loved ones from this earth. By continuing their advocacy, we relive their memory. The disappeared shall live forever.”
Mary Aileen D. Bacalso is president of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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