Disappeared: a daughter’s 40-year search for her father, taken by Guatemala’s military dictatorship

One day when she was 12 years old and still new to the ways of remembering the dead, Ana Isabel Bustamante took a photograph from the wardrobe where her mother kept her dark clothes and her most precious things.

Ana set the picture on a small table in the living room, where it remained for two days. On the third day, unable to look at the young, bearded face in the photo any longer, her mother put it back in the wardrobe.

The man in the picture was Ana’s father, Emil Bustamante López, a veterinarian, sociologist and political activist who was arrested in Guatemala City on 13 February 1982. Emil never made it to the family party for which his wife was making a cake that day. Nor did he ever meet Ana, his younger daughter, who was born eight months later. Instead, he became one of the 40,000 people who were forcibly disappeared during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.

Four decades after he vanished, his family has filed a case with the UN human rights committee, a panel of independent experts that monitors countries’ compliance with the international covenant on civil and political rights. It is the first time the committee has been asked to look into a case of enforced disappearance in Guatemala.

Although she never knew her father, Ana’s life – like those of her mother, Rosa María, and her sister, Flora – has been ineluctably shaped by his disappearance.

After Emil went missing, Rosa María grabbed Flora and fled to Mexico, where Ana was born and where they lived until she was four. While Rosa María did everything she could to protect herself and her daughters from physical harm, there was little she could do to protect all three of them from the psychological fallout of losing a loved one to forced disappearance: the anger; the grief; the desolation, and the terrible, endless not knowing.

“There’s no linear grieving process with forced disappearances,” says Ana, a film-maker who has lived in Spain for the past 12 years. “As long as there’s the possibility that the person could still be alive – although you know they aren’t – as long as there’s no body or grave, you can’t finish the grieving process. You move forward and then back, forward and then back.”

Four years ago, Ana released a film called La asfixia (Suffocation), in which she chronicled her attempts to get to know her father and find out what happened when he was disappeared at the age of 32. As she searched for traces of him in photos, videos, letters, her mother’s memories and the old family home, she discovered both the extent of her father’s secret involvement with the communist Guatemalan Labour party and the scale of her mother’s suffering and resilience.

“I wanted to show the feelings that arrests and forced disappearances bring about in family members,” says Ana. “I wanted to show the fight my mother has had to put up; I wanted to stress what she and so many other women have been forced to go through because people have said, ‘If you don’t look for your disappeared loved one, then you’re complicit’. But if you did look for them they called you a communist.”

During the seven years it took her to make the film, Ana examined her own feelings of abandonment and the wider psychological consequences of a conflict that claimed 200,000 lives and involved acts of genocide perpetrated against Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan population.

“Forced disappearances create an island of inner pain,” says Ana. “You’re too afraid to talk about the disappeared victim and so you can’t find any support groups. And that leaves you alone with your pain.”

Ana and her family know the UN investigation will be a long, slow process. They also know that the chances of learning exactly what happened to Emil are slight, as is the likelihood of finding his body.

“I’d love to find a grave and for his remains to be there. Then I’d be able to say, ‘Here he is. This happened’. But it’s very complicated as they did such a good job of making sure the victims wouldn’t reappear.”

The aim of filing the case to the UN committee is to remind people what happened in Guatemala and to make them understand that the decades of violence didn’t draw to a neat end with the signing of the peace accords in 1996.

Although the former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide in May 2013, the conviction was swiftly overturned by the country’s constitutional court, and the impunity continues to this day.

“I want people to know about what happened in Guatemala because it’s still very unknown,” says Ana. “I want people to know about it and for them to understand the scale of the horror of the arrests and forced disappearances: the victims aren’t just the people who disappeared; they’re also the families who are left behind and left broken. The living are also victims.”

Teresa Fernández Paredes, human rights adviser at the World Organisation Against Torture – which is helping the family with the UN case – says the collapse of the rule of law and attacks on judicial independence under Guatemala’s current president, Alejandro Giammattei, mean those seeking justice have little choice but to look beyond the country’s borders.

“The prospects for the families of the more than 40,000 identified victims of forced disappearance are very bleak,” says Fernández. “The only hope at this stage lies with the international community, particularly with the case of Ana Bustamante and her family that is now before the UN Human Rights Committee. The victims of the armed conflict are still asking for justice. They deserve to find their relatives, to bury and mourn them.”

Whether she ever finds her father’s body, Ana feels her investigations have at least brought her closer to the man she never met. She now knows the answer to the question she once asked her mother as a little girl: “Did my dad go away because he didn’t want to meet me?”

Until she made Suffocation, she had always assumed that accounts of her dad were more than a little hagiographical.

“I thought that was just people speaking nicely of the dead; I thought he had to have had his flaws,” she says.

“After all, he’d hidden stuff from my mother and he’d left me – so he couldn’t have been so great. But I discovered that he was a wonderful, caring and committed man. I also found out about the beautiful love story he had with my mother, which I’d had no idea about. It also led me to understand my mother’s pain – a pain she has never overcome.”

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