It is 7 a.m. Five men in civilian clothes burst into a home and seize a 23-year-old man. The chief of the gang tells the young man's mother that her son has been named a subversive by a prisoner under costody and is being taken in for questioning. She is told that she can inquire about her son the following day. But the next day -- and a thousand days later -- the police deny knowning anything about him.
In another incident, a 31-year-old woman who lived through the terror of imprisonment and returned to tell about it reports: "I was told by my captors I was not detained, nor disappeared. I was just absorbed, kidnapped, sucked up."
Scenes from "Holocaust"? No, these incidents are examples of a new phenomenon in the violation of human rights called the "disappeared person." This brutal and cynical practice is occuring almost daily in a significant number of countries. It is further evidence that the 20th century has not spent itself of horrors.
Though the phenomenon of the "disappeared person" is prevalent world-wide, most documentation comes from South and Central America. At a recent human-rights conference in Chili, the secretary general of Amnesty International estimated that in the last decade some 30,000 Latin Americans have disappeared. The number of documented missing reaches the hundreds in parts of Africa and Asia, as well as in Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. These numbers soar to the thousands in Chile and Argentina.
Since the military coups in Chile and Argentina, many thousands have disappeared without a trace after arrest by police, security forces or parapolice. In certain cases, husbands and wives have been taken together, sometimes with their young children.
Tragically, a substantial number of unaccounted-for children have been abducted or have been born in captivity to pregnant kidnap victims. No attempts have been made by governments to investigate such disappearances, and these abuses continue unchecked.
After a recent visit to Buenos Aires, V.S. Naipaul wrote: "There is still, for the distinguished or well-known, legal arrest on specific charges. But below that there is no law. People are taken away and no one is responsible. The army refers inquirers to the police and the police refer them back to the army. A special language has developed: an anxious father might be told that his son's case is 'closed.' No one really knows who does what or why; it is said that anyone can now be made to disappear, for a price."
In Argentina, one does not need to be a terrorist to be arrested, tortured or murdered. It is enough to have belonged to a trade union or a student organization or to have helped persons classified by the military as "subversive." People are simply picked up, some to return as corpses, minus their heads and hands to prevent identivication. A few are released and warned not to speak, but most are subjected to brutal conditions in secret camps.
Until recently, little international attention focused on this terrifying violation of human rights. In the last session of the United Nations General Assembly, a resolution was passed asking for intergovernmental cooperation to search and account for the disappeared.
More recently, a subcommission of the United Nations adopted a resolution stating that disappearances continue to occur and that the "dangers involved for such persons warrant urgent reaction." If the situation were to continue, the subcommission recommended, some form of emergency remedy must be applied by the international community.
The House International Organizations Subcommittee will hold today the last in a series of hearing on the phenomenon.
If, as President Carter has said, human rights is the "soul of American foreign policy," then we as a nation steeped in traditions of freedom and justice must respond to the mounting evidence. We must let the word go forth to the relatives of the disappeared, to those locked in secret detention camps and to the exiles around the world that "if you are silenced, we will speak for you."