Enforced disappearance: the families’ permanent suffering is torture

Museum of memory in Ayacucho, Peru ©Pau Pérez-Sales

A few weeks ago, I was doing a workshop with the brave women of ANFASEP, the National Association of Relatives of the Kidnapped, Detained and Disappeared of Peru, in Ayacucho. In this small town, violence is still part of daily life. When the organisation began in 1983, there were about 1000 women affiliated, wives and mothers of disappeared people. Today, only 85 of those relatives are still alive. They are older women, in whose faces and voices one can read the suffering of more than thirty years of searching for their relatives, searching for truth and justice.

They represent the reality of the tens of thousands of relatives of people disappeared due to political violence. All over the world, they are looking for their loved ones and are facing humiliation, threats, coercion, deception and silence in their search, living in suffering and in the permanent wound of doubt, trapped between the need of grieving and the impossibility to do so.

Jose Antonio Lasa and Jose Ignacio Zabala were 18 years old when they were kidnapped and tortured by the GAL, a State-sponsored paramilitary group in the Basque Country. After the torture, they were in such bad condition that the Guardia Civil (Civil Guard, national gendarmerie or police force in Spain) decided to execute and bury them in quicklime. Their relatives and loved ones searched for them for fourteen years, while the State denied having them until their remains were identified. The trauma of these years of suffering is still present in their loved ones. Although the corpses appeared, the family never recovered.

The suffering of relatives amounts to torture. It needs protection, rehabilitation and reparation.

They were somehow more fortunate than Mama Angelica, the founder of ANFASEP, who died in 2017 after forty years of searching without finding her son. Despite the complex suffering and trauma, the loved ones of victims of enforced disappearances are hardly recognised and treated as victims by their States and criminal justice systems.

Against this backdrop, the Torture Journal conducted a special interdisciplinary investigation from experts in the field of forced disappearance and torture to evidence the severe suffering of relatives of people forcibly disappeared and tortured in different cultural frameworks, different kinds of conflict and different moments in the evolution of the medical and psychological impacts over time. Examples came from Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, Argentina, Algeria and India, and the research included a review of African cases.

There is a large body of empirical or testimonial literature that addresses the severe, multifaceted and complex suffering of relatives of victims of enforced disappearance.

In many cases, relatives have been direct witnesses of the disappearance. Loved ones often imagine the circumstances of the disappearance, the anguish and helplessness of the victim, the possible acts of torture he or she may have suffered afterwards and the state he or she may be in at this moment. All this generates a severe direct or vicarious traumatic impact, in the first case as a witness, direct trauma, and in the second, through ruminations and guilt, as secondary trauma or vicarious trauma.

In the case of enforced disappearance, there are no remains or evidence to mourn, and the mourning process becomes impossible.

Enforced disappearance contains, by definition, an intentional element. The State withholds information about the disappeared person with a clear objective: to have an impact on the social and political network and the loved ones of the disappeared person. This involves not only the family but also society as a whole.

The fear generated in the environment and the rest of society leads to loved ones suffering isolation. The family of the disappeared is very often left isolated and sees their support network break down. This suffering is reinforced by the elements of psychological torture that the State itself generates by denying that it holds the detained person or by giving false information about where s/he might be.

As all search efforts prove unsuccessful, psychological processes are generated in the family members to come to terms with losing their loved one. But the loved ones, in the case of enforced disappearance, have no remains or evidence to mourn, and the mourning process becomes impossible.

Relatives are faced with an irresolvable battle: they need to believe and think that the relative is still alive and somewhere to continue searching and nourish hope, but at the same time, they need to assume that s/he is not coming back to continue with life, to be able to solve practical issues, to reposition affections, especially in members of the younger generations. As a result, they are confronted with intense feelings of shame or guilt.

Rehabilitation efforts are complex and demand special resources and technical skills.

The research shows that life is suspended due to the impossibility of recovering any form of normalcy, and there is permanent, transgenerational damage. Relatives are condemned to live in uncertainty and anguish, as there is a “search mandate” transmitted from the first generation (parents, partner of the disappeared person) to the second (daughters and sons) or, as the studies indicate, to the third (granddaughters and grandsons). Any grief and mourning process is simply impossible.

There is often a family breakdown, with confrontation, accusations or polarisation between family members and, in many cases, a breakdown of the life project and relationships for the loved ones. In this sense, the suffering is severe, permanent, transmitted to future generations and with characteristics that make it very difficult to address from a medical or psychiatric point of view. Thus, rehabilitation efforts are complex and demand special resources and technical skills.

The suffering of the relatives is defined by the word ambivalence: ambivalence between hope and despair, between reconstructing life but at the same time feeling betrayed, between talking about what happened and making a pact of silence within the family so as not to provoke further suffering, the ambivalence between pursuing the search for truth and justice and the risk that this entails in many contexts.

The research shows that, for all of the above reasons, there are more than enough elements to consider that the criteria of severe suffering, intentionality, purpose and role of the State required by the definition of torture in the United Nations Convention have been met and that the nightmare of the loved ones of disappeared people must be considered as torture.

Pau Pérez-Sales is a psychiatrist
and internationally renowned expert in forensic documentation and rehabilitation of victims of torture and other ill-treatment. He is the Director of SiR[a], a member organisation of the OMCT’s SOS-Torture Network based in Spain.


On 22 September 2022, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and the OMCT held a thematic briefing with the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) to push for stronger recognition and protection of relatives and other loved ones of those who are forcibly disappeared across the globe.

The level of anguish and suffering inflicted on family members has been repeatedly considered by the medical, psychological and legal community to be of sufficient severity to meet the threshold of the definition of torture. Yet, relatives of victims of enforced disappearances are systematically harassed in many countries. Searching for the truth exposes them to great danger, and they may suffer the same fate themselves.

During the briefing, two experts, Pau Pérez, psychiatrist, editor-in-chief of the Torture Journal and clinical director at SiRa, and Bernard Duhaime, professor of international law at the Faculty of Law and Political Science of the University of Quebec in Montreal and former member and Chair of the WGEID, presented the main findings of the research that led to the publication of a special section on enforced disappearance as torture in the Issue 2021/2 of the Torture Journal: Journal on Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and Prevention of Torture. Helena Solà Martín, the senior legal advisor at the OMCT, presented the recommendations addressed to the WGEID.

Read the related briefing note here.