Bogota: Colombia’s decades of conflict have caused more “disappeared” than South America’s military dictatorships put together, and the anguish still goes on, as the “living dead” leave hundreds of thousands of survivors in the grip of mental anguish, psychologists say.

“The disappearance of someone is like torture, night and day,” says Judith Cassallas, her voice breaking.

Almost 11 years ago, her daughter — three months pregnant — and her husband went to spend a weekend in a tourist village near Cali. They never came back.

All trace of Mary Johana Cassallas, 21, and Jose Duque, 25, were lost in the violence of a more than five-decade war. They have become another statistic among 83,000 Colombians, according to the Latin American country’s National Center for Historical Memory. It’s a problem the country’s new president will inherit after Sunday’s election.

The number of disappeared at the hands of the parties to the conflict — leftist guerrillas, right wing paramilitaries and the security forces — is almost thrice those of the dictatorship of Argentina, Brazil and Chile put together. According to the latest figures, those amount to a combined 32,300 people.

Mary Johana is one of those people who “left her home one day and of whom we know nothing more since,” says anthropologist Myriam Jimeno.

“In the case of the missing ... the most serious problem is the unfinished mourning. It’s a wound that does not heal,” said Jimeno, emeritus professor at Bogota’s National University.

How Judith’s daughter and son-in-law disappeared remains a mystery. “It was October 7th 2007. Since then, we never had any news,” says her mother, who was left almost literally broken-hearted.

Occupying ‘every space’

At 58, she has already undergone two heart surgeries, takes “a lot of drugs” and had to give up her job as a seamstress.

Sorrow, insomnia, the stress of running to the morgue to identify corpses, the disappointed hopes, “the extortions of people who profit from the pain of others” to sell unsound information, the fear of asking too many questions: this is the reality of being a relative of a disappeared person, Judith says.

“Every Mothers’ Day, I wanted to die. My missing daughter occupied every space,” admits Judith.

Then she went to see psychologists from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF Medecins Sans Frontieres). “It was like coming out of a black hole, without forgetting my daughter, but getting rid of all this anguish.”

Little by little, she rediscovered her appetite for life and day to day communication with her two other daughters and her grandchildren.

“The missing person occupies the emotional life of their relatives,” says Ivonne Zabala, coordinator of MSF’s mental health programs, who in September launched an innovative psychological assistance program for the families of the disappeared.

“Thanks to the peace process, greater attention is paid to victims whose relatives have disappeared,” says Nicolas Gildersleeve, head of the local MSF mission. “For every missing person, there must be three — sometimes up to five — who suffer from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress.”

A turtle in its shell

Specialised psychologists have been deployed in Cali and Puerto Asis, in the southwestern department of Putumayo, another of the conflict’s flashpoints. To date, around 100 patients have had therapy that, through speech, dance and art, aims to make absence bearable.

Among them is 73-year-old Margot Pulecio who has been waiting for her husband Nelson Escobar to reappear since 1995.

He was taken away one day by “a group of men to look after sick dogs on a farm. They got out of jeeps, pointed weapons at him and took him away” to the mountains, she says.

FARC guerrillas, then camped in numbers in the nearby Valle del Cauca region, signed a peace agreement with the government in 2016 and promised the truth about their victims. Margot is still waiting.

Deprived of her husband’s income, she was taken in by her unmarried brother, a retired architect, and has come back to life since she began weekly sessions with a psychologist.

“Before, I was closed in on myself like a little turtle in its shell. Now I feel more normal,” the old lady says in a serious tone.

“Enforced disappearance is like a slow torture experienced by loved ones,” says Yvonne Zabala, listing psychosomatic disorders, chronic diseases and cancers among the ailments suffered by those who are left behind. As well as that, they are often stigmatised, as people often believe that no one disappears without a reason.

To Guillermo, Margot’s 70-year-old brother who is also undergoing therapy, it amounts to “the sharing of sadness day after day.”

“The whole family is affected when there is an abduction because we have to wait ... and 23 years is a long time!”