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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Liu

Online Seminar: "Transnational Experiences of Enforced Disappearances" (Day 2, Part 1)

This seminar is part of the launch of the virtual exhibition "Following the Footsteps of the Disappeared", which is in partnership with the Ulster Museum, Ulster University and Conflict Textiles.

Speakers from Seminar 2, 31st of August 2020

With Rainer Huhle's presentation "Guadalupe's Longing" and Gonzalo's testimony still re-playing in my mind the following morning, I am starting to remember stories from my parents and grandparents about family who disappeared during times of political unrest in Asia. As a child listening to their stories, I remember being able to feel pain within their voices, but not having the maturity then to comprehend fully what my parents and grandparents were trying to share with me.

Having never directly encountered an enforced disappearance of a family member or friend, I realise the need to approach this issue with an open heart and mind to learn. From Roberta, I am learning to approach with hands empty and unclenched, bringing a clean slate to the table. My hope is, even through writing these little blog entries, to present an attitude of willingness and empathy to learn from and, most importantly, to listen to whomever wants to share their story. For those reading this and are interested in Conflict Textiles, I hope that you go and explore Roberta's extensive work on archiving arpilleras from all over the world:

Seminar 1, "Transnational Experiences of Enforced Disappearances", was lined up with an impressive list of speakers. Below are concise introductions for each of the main speakers, which are copied from Ulster Museum's website:

  • "Shari Eppel, Director of Ukuthula Trust, living and working in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and part the forensic anthropology team for Zimbabwe uncovering mass and single graves resulting from politically motivated killings."

  • "Ram Kumar Bhandari, a human rights activist from Nepal whose father was disappeared in 2001. Ram has led the struggle to secure justice for victims of Nepal's conflict and systematic disappearances for over a decade."

  • "Respondent: Professor Cath Collins of Transnational Justice Institute at Ulster University. Founder of the Transitional Justice Observatory in Chile that works closely with relatives' associations seeking truth during the Pinochet-era dictatorship."

A slide from Shari Eppel's presentation in Seminar 1

"Transnational Experiences of Enforced Disappearances".

What an incredible privilege to listen to Shari Eppel's personal stories as a forensic anthropologist in Zimbabwe. Her speaking went beyond an academic fashion; it was filled with heartfelt humanity. Although she speaks of uncovering graves and bones, there is nothing morbid about her stories. Instead, Shari breathes life into these bones through her gifted ability to tell us the person's life story and, as well, their surviving family's stories. In that moment, as she paints a face, a personality, how they unjustly died, you gain a glimpse of him or her--as a mother, a father, a husband, a wife, a daughter, a son, a nephew, a someone. Inexplicably, dust and bones transform into a person.

"Bones speak," Shari shares.

Shari shows pictures of Julius' grave. The grave is shallow, no respect given to the person buried. She explains their process, their ritual, as they uncover the remains of the person who has been missing for years. Immediate family members and neighbours from the village surround Shari and her team as they carefully brush away dirt that blanket bones and belongings. This is a collective uncovering. As Shari explains, this process of exhumation and reburial not only acts as a healing for the dead, but as well a healing for the living.

During this process, Shari and her team carefully sets apart the bones. Shari reads the trauma shown on the bones. In Julius' case, she explains the breakage in the arms, telling Julius' children and neighbours that this type of breaking in the bones is most likely caused by beating while being handcuffed. Not only does Shari read bones, she also pays special attention to reading textiles that cover these bones. What always amazes me is how textiles can speak truth even in the absence of a body. Shari gives the example of Julius' trousers. She notices scorch marks to the left leg, and with that she pieces together conversations she had about how burning plastic was a form of torture that was used during that time. The clothing can also be used as a means to confirm witness accounts of the last thing that person was seen wearing. When Julius' jersey was shown to his family, his son instantly tells Shari that this was his jersey that he gave his father to wear that day.

What goes beyond culture, geography and race is the collective, universal understanding of love, loss, hope. Through Shari's testimony about her work, I am struck by the image of sons and daughters never seeing their father or mother, standing by Shari's side as she carefully digs and presents this missing parent's bones. Even more poignant are the images she presents of the son or daughter stroking the bones of the mother or father who were violently taken away from them. Shari brings the family together--truly, healing the dead and ultimately healing the living. It seems that the greatest fear for Shari is time, meaning the longer it takes for her and her team to discover unmarked graves, bones will someday turn to dust. When that happens, it becomes another form of silencing the dead.

Shari's textile piece titled "For Paul, Disappeared 8 February 2012" can be viewed in the virtual exhibition "Following the Footsteps of the Disappeared" and as well in the virtual archives of Conflict Textiles.

Ram Bhanderi's true story "My Father's Dream"

Ram Bhanderi's story is unbelievably true. On the 31 of December 2001, he shares that his father Tej Bahadur Bhanderi, aged 56, disappeared. I recommend that you go click on that link above to read Ram's story in his own words. As I was listening to Ram speaking about the systemic disappearances in Nepal and learning about this for the first time, I found myself looking at the face of not just a researcher or an activist, but a son still searching for his father.

I lack the words and the experience to properly share the important message that Ram has to offer--why it's important for him and others to share their stories to the world. And so here is an excerpt from Ram's article "My Father's Dream" that where he beautifully expresses all that:

"I personally went through all the entire process and have achieved nothing in my search for the truth about my father. Gradually, I became engaged in the victim rights movement and have spent the last two decades working for the families of the disappeared. It’s a very personal cause for me and I never imagined how hard the fight would be. But the world has not done enough to acknowledge the suffering of the families, or listen to them. We have to tell our stories to the world, reorganize, and prepare for a long battle to keep the voices of the families alive." (

Image of from Prof. Cath Collin's presentation

"To be a searcher is to be a cartographer of the world's tragedies," remarks Professor Cath Collins. After listening to Shari and Ram speak about their life's work, Cath realises that there is a new discipline carved out by professionals who work with and family members who are directly affected by enforced disappearances. Cath importantly points out that these disappearances are not caused by natural disasters. She observes that responses need to go beyond, so that there may be some kind of guarantee of non-repetition.

Wanting to understand more about the plight of the family members, I am thankful for Cath's candid explanation of that in-between feeling of "knowing, but not knowing" experienced by family members who are searching for their missing son / daughter / husband / wife. She describes this search to be an all-consuming passion that evolves into constant activism -- a cycle of reminding, demanding and searching.

Cath goes on to explain how this individual search for the missing evolves to a collective search. There is one account that she gives which sticks to the heart. When a mass grave is discovered in South America, it is common to lay out remains and belongings (often clothing) that are found. The mothers in that area would walk around each remain, studying the clothing. Often the mothers will recognise the clothing of their child because they wove them! Once again, I am struck by the power of textiles and the strong relationship textiles has with the body of the missing. After the mothers identify their children, they will always go back to walk around again to find the remains that no one has claimed. As Cath explains, these mothers will lay their hands on unclaimed remains and say, "If no one has claimed him, he is mine." How beautiful and heartbreaking is that spoken word from a mother? Officials would be puzzled and ask why they would claim unknown remains as their own. In response, the mothers will tell the officials: "But these are all our children." What happens to these unclaimed remains is a new type of catastrophe -- as Cath labels it, a "new disappearance" -- because these bodies if unclaimed will be put into bags and archived away, never receiving a proper burial. Heartbreaking truth.

By connecting enforced disappearances in Africa, South America and India, one realises that this is a far bigger topic than imagined. After listening to Shari, Ram and Cath speak about their work and experiences, I realise that this is only a piece to the bigger picture of what is happening globally. My heart is heavy but it has widened. With still another seminar to go, my mind cannot help but wonder what it is that we can do. Having heard and learned about enforced disappearances, how can we move forward in our work and living as if never hearing about it?

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