Disappearance

By Professor Janine Natalya Clark

More than 30,000 people were reported missing as a result of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. As part of transitional justice work in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), extensive efforts have been made to resolve the issue of missing persons. According to the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) in BiH, as many as 23,000 missing people have now been accounted for.[1] DNA technology has been crucial in this regard, facilitating the identification of often co-mingled human remains and providing much-needed closure to the families of the missing. Identification ends their liminal state of not knowing.

River in winter woodlandThe issue of disappearance, however, has a broader significance and meaning that extends beyond literal physical disappearance. In my ongoing fieldwork with victims-survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in BiH, disappearance has emerged as a recurrent underlying theme in several ways. The first is that some research participants have stressed that they are no longer the person that they were before the sexual violence. One interviewee, for example, explained: ‘I am no longer the strong women I once was. Nothing was impossible for me. I am now afraid. Let’s say that. I am afraid of everything’. It is as if their pre-war selves, the individuals that they were before the sexual violence, have disappeared. Other research participants have talked, inter alia, about losing their zest for life, retreating into themselves and no longer being the confident and happy people they once were. Yet, disappearance in this regard is not necessarily or always a negative. If being is ‘always in process of becoming’,[2] the disappearance of one’s former self can be the positive becoming of a new self. A male interviewee, for example, emphasized that his war experiences have made him more aware of his strength. ‘When you get through everything that I have been through’, he noted, ‘you have to admit that you are strong’.

The thematic of disappearance has also frequently arisen in a second way. Although some research participants have difficult family relationships and do not have the support of their spouses/partners, children have emerged very clearly as important protective resources that can help to buffer the impact of trauma. It was striking how one interviewee only smiled when she spoke about her two young daughters. Without them, she explained, she did not know if she would still be here. Her eyes lit up as she described how much it means to her when they hug her and tell her that she is the best mother in the world. In other words, children (and grandchildren) can be a critical factor for explaining resilience. In BiH, research participants have consistently talked about needing to fight, to carry on, to move forward because of their children. While their children give them an essential raison-d’etre, there is also a sense that some victims-survivors have ‘disappeared’ to the extent that they no longer have their own aspirations, goals or dreams. They are vicariously living through their children and they see themselves as less important. It is as if they do not matter, just as their own wishes did not matter to the individuals who violated and abused them during the Bosnian war.

There is a third way in which victims-survivors can disappear, namely when they are speaking about their war experiences (and not just sexual violence). It is as though they go back to the past. A recent interview was particularly significant in this regard. As the interviewee spoke about the war and what she went through in Velika Kladuša, in the north-west corner of BiH, a temporal distance opened up between us and it was as if the person to whom I had been speaking for the last hour had suddenly disappeared. She fiddled with a tissue and a lighter, and for those few minutes she made no eye contact with me. She had gone somewhere else and I was no longer in the room with her. She proceeded to recount how, after she was raped, she confided in her mother-in-law, who then told everyone in the village what had happened. Speaking softly, and still without making eye contact, the interviewee recalled: ‘Tada sam shvatila da me više nema’ (Then I realized that I no longer exist). She further described how her mother-in-law’s betrayal made her feel ‘nebitna’ (irrelevant) and ‘nevidljiva’ (invisible). It was not only the case, therefore, that the interviewee briefly disappeared from the present. The story that she told was about her own disappearance after being raped.

These examples point to the fact that in a transitional justice context, dealing with the issue of disappearance involves more that the exhumation of mass graves and identification of the dead. It is also about helping the living disappeared to ‘come back’ and to find themselves in the present, to be visible and to be heard. Fundamentally, transitional justice processes need to be responsive to everyday lives and to the quotidian needs and challenges that exist in post-war societies such as BiH. It is striking that while the country has experienced various forms of transitional justice, the overwhelming majority of research participants are neither familiar with the term nor aware of the transitional justice work that has taken place. 

Music can offer an escape from reality, a way of mentally ‘disappearing’ from the here and now. In Hans Zimmer’s Time, for example, the ‘repetitive structures ensure that the listeners can be led blissfully along…’.[3] From a soft beginning, the music builds and builds, ‘a crescendo that attains an unsustainable height and then breaks, leaving behind eerily still waters’.[4] Transitional justice processes should not leave the waters ‘eerily still’, marked by the disappearance of what once was. Rather, they should create new movement and flow that help to rejuvenate the quotidian.


[1] ICMP, ‘Sustaining the process of accounting for missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina’, available at: https://www.icmp.int/news/sustaining-the-process-of-accounting-for-missing-persons-in-bosnia-and-herzegovina/

[2] Alan Norrie, Dialectic and Difference: Critical Realism and the Grounds of Justice (London: Routledge, 2010), 31.

[3] Frank Lehman (2016). ‘Manufacturing the epic score: Hans Zimmer and the sounds of significance’. In Stephen C. Meyer (Ed.), Music in Epic Film: Listening to Spectacle (New York: Routledge), p.29.

[4] Ibid., p.30.