To Take Without Echo: A Brief History of Disappearance

The March of Silence, Uruguay, where protesters demand truth and justice for those disappeared during the country's military dictatorship. (Photo Credit: Lu Surroca)
The March of Silence, Uruguay, where protesters demand truth and justice for those disappeared during the country’s military dictatorship. (Photo Credit: Lu Surroca).


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.


Relatives of those disappeared in Mexico's Dirty War. (Photo Credit: Liliana Zaragoza Cano)
Relatives of those disappeared in Mexico’s Dirty War. (Photo Credit: Liliana Zaragoza Cano).

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)
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.”


Daniel Macmillan Voskoboynik is a writer and activist. He tweets at @bywordlight.