Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2021
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
New York University
Anonymous Death: Unidentified Dead Bodies, Forced Disappearance, and Rights in the Afterlife (Colombia, 1980-2016)

In the early 1990s, unidentified dead bodies became a major public issue in Colombia. In tandem with the upsurge of the internal armed conflict and drug trafficking, thousands of nameless corpses –termed N.N.s– appeared along highways, rivers, and clandestine graves. The sudden increase of N.N.s set off a public controversy. The outcome of the struggles was the definition of N.N.s as likely victims of forced disappearance. My dissertation traces how relatives of missing people, local communities, and state actors transformed the meanings of the N.N.s through claims about the humanity and dignity of dead bodies and advocacy for the right to identity after death. I suggest that the understanding of unidentified dead bodies through the lens of forced disappearance offered a way for actors to extend – even into the afterlife – ideas about the human condition and rights. While not all the N.N.s were missing people, this issue generated a sustained effort to change the treatment of nameless corpses in Colombia. In this sense, the unidentified dead bodies’ potential status as victims of political violence generated unexpected connections between the rights of the living and the dead. My research underlines the role of the nameless dead and their corporality in the process of social recovery from devastating political violence. In so doing, I seek to demonstrate how N.N.s served to challenge state and non-state actors’ power over life and death, and reconstitute the way that people related to death as a human experience. I underscore the connections between N.N.s and the crime of forced disappearance to examine how the materiality of the deceased can redefine the terms of and promote debate about citizenship and rights on the borders of life and death.