The last time Jean Bigirimana’s family saw or heard from him was 1,500 days ago.
The Burundian reporter and father of two went missing on July 22, 2016, allegedly after being arrested by the country’s National Security Service in Bugarama, some 45km (28 miles) from the capital, Bujumbura.
Later that day, one of Bigirimana’s colleagues at the independent Iwacu newspaper received an anonymous phone call alerting him them of the arrest.
Unlike dozens of other Burundian journalists, Bigirimana had decided against fleeing the country in the aftermath of the widespread violence that erupted in 2015 following late President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial decision to seek a third term in office.
Rights groups at the time had documented a series of kidnappings, arrests and killings of civil society activists, journalists and others by government forces, armed opposition groups and unidentified attackers.
More than four years since Bigirimana’s enforced disappearance, the agony of his family is “unimaginable“, Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa, said in a statement on Sunday marking the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.
“The Burundian government’s failure to account for him is an affront to the principles of truth, justice and accountability,” Muchena added, urging the new goverment of President Evariste Ndayishimiye to “end the practice of enforced disappearances immediately” and prosecute perpetrators of such acts.
“Families have the right to know the truth about the fate of their loved ones.”
Amnesty also called on Burundi’s government to ratify the 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. To date, 63 countries have done so.
In a report last year, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi said security forces, police and the governing party’s youth league had continued to commit serious human rights abuses.
Noting reports of “numerous disappearances”, the UN investigators said they were “deeply concerned about the frequence of such disappearances” and called on the government to set up an independent body with a mandate to investigate cases of disappearance reported since April 2015, locate potential mass graves and exhume and identify the remains.
Every year on August 30, families, activists and humanitarian groups around the world mark the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances to draw attention to a practice that is frequently being used “as a strategy to spread terror within the society”, according to the UN.
In 1980, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances was established to assist relatives to determine the fate of their disappeared family members. To date, some 55,000 disappearances have been registered with the body.
But Bernard Duhaime, professor of law at the University of Quebec and member of the working group, said this figure was just “the tip of the iceberg”.
He noted that it was almost impossible to assess the extent of disappearances worldwide due to their “clandestine nature”.
“It is an intentionally hidden crime by nature,” said Duhaime.
The working group typically receives disappearance reports from family members or organisations around the world. It then transmits this information to the relevant governments requesting them to carry out investigations. Since the issuing of the Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 1992, the body has also has been mandated with monitoring the states’ compliance with their obligations under the declaration.
But Rachel Nicholson, Amnesty’s Burundi researcher, said reporting disappearances to international bodies such as the working group or the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances could be dangerous for relatives seeking the truth.
“Families reporting a disappearance risk reprisals,” said Nicholson. “They have to be very brave to do so.”
The extent to which disappearances can remain a burning political issue and tear at the social fabric is vivid in the case of Nepal, where 2,500 disappearances have been registered to the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP), which was established to probe such cases in the country following the end of a decade-long civil war in 2006.
Commenting on the situation in Nepal, human rights activist Ram Bhandari said the issue of disappearances still haunts the country.
“The government is fully betraying victims and survivors and has not been honest about implementing the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement to address the legacy of forced disappearances,” argued Bhandari, founder of the Network of Families of the Disappeared in Nepal.
“After years of state denial there is still no closure for families or for society. This might turn into revenge and a cycle of violence.”
According to Eva Nudd, who runs the enforced disappearances project at victims-rights organisation Redress, lack of access to justice is one of the most difficult consequences of disappearances for families to live with. In her view, this is particularly acute in countries such as Sudan and Algeria where alleged perpetrators have received immunity.
Nudd said one of the biggest problems with the definition of enforced disappearances is that such disappearances are defined as being committed by a state – whereas now non-state actors are increasingly becoming perpetrators of disappearances, as is evident in countries such as Libya and Sudan.
While families are further deprived of the ability to exercise funeral rites and traditions associated with burials, Nicholson said one of the practical problems flowing from disappearances is obtaining documentation for the children of a disappeared person.
She described disappearances as a “continuing violation” since their effects are “felt by families for years and years”. Meanwhile, the time-consuming burden of looking for the disappeared person also mostly falls on women who then struggle to carry out their other daily duties.
“In Nepal, however, women have been allowed access to social services without having to produce death certificates,” noted Nudd.