Page 1


The Victims Are ‘Invisible’ By Donald L. Niewyk Dallas “To disappear”: to vanish, to cease to exist, to be lost. It has happened to hundreds of thousands of people in the last decade alone, and it continues to happen every day in countries scattered across the globe. Disappearances are a favorite weapon of intimidation in the hands of repressive governments because the victims are invisible. Nobody knows whether they are dead or alive; there are no verifiable prisoners of conscience or public executions. The authorities claim that they know nothing about the fate of those who have vanished. Disappearances are not new. The Nazi war machine found them useful in curbing resistance among its captive populations during World War II. As Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the German High Command, wrote in 1941: “Effective intimidation can be achieved either by capital punishment or by measures by which the relatives of the criminal and the population do not know his fate.” Indeed, disappearances could be preferable to death sentences, since the latter tended to create martyrs. What is new about disappearances is that they have become increasingly common in recent years. Amnesty International, the worldwide human rights organization, has gathered information on thousands of disappearances. Among them is the case of Bahadin Ahmad Muhammad, a young teacher in South Yemen. In March, 1972, shortly after he got married, Muhammad was at his eldest sister’s home in Aden showing photographs of his wedding when he answered a knock at the door. He was last seen being driven off in a jeep. Neither his wife nor his family has heard anything from him since. Police and government officials deny any knowledge of his existence. That same night, 18 other people disappeared in South Yemen. th Another victim of disappearance is Carlos Contreras, a Chilean pharmacist. Injured in a street accident in Santiago on November 3, 1976, he was lying in a pool of blood when a car drew up and secret service agents jumped out to drag him off. The incident was witnessed by several police officers. He has not been seen or heard from since, and the authorities deny that they have ever held him. A Philippino union leader, Petronilo Torno, disappeared only a few days after his release from a detention camp on May 27, 1980, where he had been held for unspecified reasons. He was carried away by men who identified themselves as members of the paramilitary police, the Philippino Constabulary. His family’s efforts to determine his fate have proved fruitless. In Guatemala, where since 1978 nearly 5,000 people have been arrested without warrant and murdered by civil and military security forces, Alaide Foppa de Solorzano disappeared on December 19, 1980. A distinguished art critic, poet, feminist journalist, and teacher at the National University of Mexico, she disappeared in Guatemala City while visiting her sick mother. Eyewitnesses saw machine-gun toting members of the Guatemalan army’s G-2 commando unit drag her from her mother’s car. She has not been heard from since. These four _cases illustrate a human tragedy of truly staggering proportions, as the numbers of victims make plain. In Uganda under Idi Amin, anywhere from 100,000 to half a million disappeared and are presumed dead. Cambodia contributed perhaps three-quarters of a million to the grisly register. In Latin America, at least 1,500 Chileans, between 6,000 and 15,000 Argentineans, and as many as 30,000 Guatemalans vanished during the last fifteen years. No one knows how many have disappeared in Afghanistan, but fragmentary evidence suggests that they number in many thousands. Other countries with sordid records of disappearances include El Salvador, Syria, Ethiopia, Angola, Bolivia, Paraguay, Zaire, Mexico, Guinea, Morocco, and South Africa. Amnesty International is responding to the problem of disappearances by assigning individual cases to its various “adoption groups,” whose members pester government officials in offending countries for information. It also activates its “urgent action network” a worldwide barrage of letters and telegrams from AI members when it has reason’to believe that someone who has disappeared would be tortured or killed if nothing were said. In addition, AI sheds the harsh light of publicity on offending countries in the hope that they will not wish to risk further infamy. The organization has adoption groups in several Texas cities. For information about Amnesty International’s work and how to help in it, write AIUSA, 304 West 58th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019. c/o Linny Goldstein Houston, Tx. 77006 P.O. Box 4951 Austin, Tx. 78765 do Renee Berta 4848 Portsmouth El Paso, Tx. 79922 P.O. Box LH134 San Antonio, Tx. 78212 P.O. Box 7933 Beaumont, Tx. 77706 No tel. P.O. Box 140702 Dallas, Tx. 75214 Donald L. Niewyk is Associate Professor of History at Southern Methodist University. Politicians Yes! Candidates for Public Office Mugwumps, Know-nothings, Redhots, Say-Nothings, Town Criers, Donothings, Progressives, Dinosaurs, Democrats, Phelgmocrats, Republicans, Reaganuts, Peanuts, and Jelly-Beans! Do you want to pitch your pitch to the best-educated most-intelligent, and most-active savvy-o’s in Texas? Would you like to spiel your spiel to the knowing, committed, ready to help for the right-cause readers of the Texas Observer? Now, as the biennial battle of the Texas Democracy revs up, do you need volunteer workers, contributions, word-of-mouth activists, planners, plotters? Then advertise! Come-on One, Come-on All! For advertising rates and deadlines, telephone Cliff Olofson at Observer at 600 W. 7th, Austin 78701. Do not delay. 10 APRIL 23, 1982