Can you die of a broken heart? In 2013, a mother stood at the edge of the memorial for her son. She had been waiting to properly bury her son since he disappeared at the age of 19, in 1989. Now, 24 years later she was asked to find closure in burying a clump of hair. Hair that she believed did not even belong to her son. And in that moment, standing at her son’s memorial, she had a heart attack.

It was just like any other day when the 19 year-old political activist left the house in the morning. But that night he did not return. The family searched and searched for the missing boy. In 2013 they finally received a call telling them his remains had been found. When they traveled to Pretoria to collect the boy’s remains, they watched as other families received the bones of their loved ones. Yet, all this family received was hair. They were told that he had been burned alive, so nothing was left but his hair. When thinking back on that day, his cousin explained that it makes no sense. How could the hair remain when someone was burned alive almost thirty years ago? And how did they know the hair belonged to him? The boy’s cousin grappled with these questions while explaining that her family was promised  DNA tests of the hair. They never received the results.

The family feels that not enough was done. They are not satisfied with the story they have been asked to believe. “I think it’s sad for him, because he’s out there somewhere with no one. We need him to come home.” His cousin went on to describe a young, intelligent man. She hoped he would have become a lawyer. The bright 19-year-old boy would have become a man and taken care of his parents. His cousin explained, “If this had not happened, maybe my grandmother would have been okay. She died on the spot that day. It was just too much for her.”

So, can you die of a broken heart? In traditional African culture, the answer is yes. When a person is not properly buried, cosmic harmony is disrupted. Life is put on pause. The family cannot go on with their lives. Without cosmic harmony, family members of the disappeared fall ill and often pass on themselves.

A mother should never have to die not knowing what happened to her child. Yet, as the years since the apartheid regime continue to go by, so many parents pass on, still searching for their children. We cannot continue to let the years and the memories slip away. The first step is to sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Something needs to be done about missing remains, and it needs to be done now.

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