Vanished: a child's 40-year search for her daddy, taken by Guatemala's military dictatorship


One day when she was 12 years old and still new to the methods of remembering the dead, Ana Isabel Bustamante took a photograph from the wardrobe where her mother kept her dark clothing 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 closet.

The man in the picture was Ana's dad, Emil Bustamante López, a vet, sociologist and political activist who was jailed in Guatemala City on 13 February 1982. Emil never made it to the family celebration for which his other half was making a cake that day. Nor did he ever meet Ana, his more youthful child, who was born 8 months later. Rather, he became one of the 40,000 people who were forcibly vanished 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 keeps an eye on countries' compliance with the global 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 dad, Ana's life-- like those of her mother, Rosa María, and her sis, Flora-- has been ineluctably formed by his disappearance.

After Emil went missing out on, Rosa María grabbed Flora and fled to Mexico, where Ana was born and where they lived up until she was four. While Rosa María did everything she might to safeguard herself and her children from physical harm, there was little she might do to protect all three of them from the mental fallout of losing a loved one to forced disappearance: the anger; the grief; the desolation, and the awful, unlimited not knowing.

" There's no direct grieving procedure with forced disappearances," states 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 live-- although you know they aren't-- as long as there's no body or no grave, you can't finish the mourning process. You move forward and then back, forward and then back."

4 years earlier, Ana released a film called La asfixia (Suffocation), in which she chronicled her attempts to be familiar with her daddy and discover what occurred when he was disappeared at the age of 32. As she looked for traces of him in pictures, videos, letters, her mom's memories and the old family home, she found both the level of her dad's secret participation with the communist Guatemalan Labour celebration and the scale of her mom's suffering and strength.

" I wanted to show the feelings that arrests and forced disappearances bring about in member of the family," states Ana. "I wanted to show the fight my mother has had to put up; I wished to stress what she therefore many other women have been forced to go through because people have stated, 'If you don't try to find your vanished 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 movie, Ana analyzed her own sensations of desertion and the wider mental consequences of a dispute that claimed 200,000 lives and involved acts of genocide committed against Guatemala's indigenous Mayan population.

" Forced disappearances produce an island of inner discomfort," says Ana. "You're too afraid to talk about the disappeared victim and so you can't discover any support system. Which leaves you alone with your pain."

Ana and her family understand the UN examination will be a long, slow process. They also understand that the opportunities of discovering exactly what took place to Emil are small, as is the possibility of finding his body.

" I 'd love to find a tomb and for his remains to be there. Then I 'd be able to state, 'Here he is. This took place'. But it's really made complex as they did such a good job of making certain the victims would not reappear."

The objective of filing the case to the UN committee is to advise people what happened in Guatemala and to make them understand that the years 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 condemned of genocide in May 2013, the conviction was promptly reversed by the nation's constitutional court, and the impunity continues to this day.

" I want people to know about what took place in Guatemala because it's still really unknown," states Ana. "I desire people to learn about it and for them to comprehend the scale of the scary of the arrests and required disappearances: the victims aren't just the people who disappeared; they're likewise the households who are left and left broken. The living are also victims."

Teresa Fernández Paredes, human rights advisor at the World Organisation Against Torture-- which is assisting the family with the UN case-- says the collapse of the rule of law and attacks on judicial self-reliance under Guatemala's existing president, Alejandro Giammattei, mean those looking for justice have little option but to look beyond the country's borders.

" The prospects for the families of the more than 40,000 recognized victims of forced disappearance are very bleak," states Fernández. "The only hope at this stage lies with the worldwide community, particularly with the case of Ana Bustamante and her family that is now prior to the UN Human Rights Committee. The victims of the armed dispute are still asking for justice. They should have to discover their relatives, to bury and mourn them."

Whether she ever discovers her dad's body, Ana feels her examinations have at least brought her closer to the man she never met. She now knows the answer to the question she as soon as asked her mom as a little girl: "Did my daddy disappear because he didn't wish to meet me?"

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

" I believed that was simply people speaking perfectly of the dead; I believed he needed to have had his flaws," she states.

" After all, he 'd concealed things from my mother and he 'd left me-- so he could not have been so terrific. However I found that he was a wonderful, caring and committed man. I also discovered the lovely love story he had with my mother, which I 'd had no idea about. It also led me to comprehend my mom's discomfort-- a pain she has actually never gotten rid of."

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