The Importance of Interviewing Disappeared Individuals

The work of investigating disappeared individuals can be distressing, frustrating and dangerous. This is especially true when working cases involving torture or other harrowing circumstances.


Disappearances are a global issue with profound societal and legal implications. Individuals can make a significant difference by raising awareness, supporting organizations and staying vigilant.

Interviewing Close Associates

The most critical information in cases of disappeared individuals comes from relatives and close associates. Interviewing them is an important part of any investigation. Yet, this type of work often does not receive the attention it deserves. Whether it is because of a misunderstanding of the importance of interviews or a misplaced emphasis on technical tools that may help locate burial sites, it is all too easy to overlook this vital step.

This is particularly true in armed conflict contexts, where the disappearance of persons is a frequent and troubling phenomenon. The large-scale abductions of civilians by non-state actors, such as Boko Haram or criminal gangs, the disappearance of migrants, often at the hands of smugglers and traffickers, and the enforced disabling of civilians through drone strikes or other weapons means that there is an ongoing and pervasive risk of disappearance.

As a result, there is a strong need to focus on interviewing relatives and close associates of disappeared individuals, but also on developing the broader investigative skills required to understand and interpret their responses. This includes a deep understanding of what is being communicated through their words and body language, and the impact of the social and cultural environment on their willingness and ability to provide useful information. Taking the time to invest in building rapport and showing empathy can make a difference in their willingness to share information and contribute to a successful outcome of the investigation.

Searching for Clues

When someone goes missing, it affects more than just that person and their loved ones. It can ripple out into the community and the larger society, as well as generate significant financial strain. In addition to the cost of travel and hiring private investigators, families can find themselves in legal limbo without a body, unable to access bank accounts or settle estates.

As such, journalists play a crucial role in uncovering the truth about disappearances, particularly in areas where state and rule of law have collapsed. In these cases, reporting on the impacts of disappearances can help to deter criminal activity, inform public policy changes and support the work of law enforcement.

Investigating disappearances can be complex, involving extensive surveillance, public appeals and community search efforts. In many instances, the most important sources of information are not in databases but rather human sources – interviewing close associates and investigating their homes and belongings (for example, diaries, emails) can provide valuable clues to their last movements.

Journalists can also utilize specialized techniques like skip tracing to identify people who may have been in contact with the missing person in the days before they disappeared. Additionally, they can look at a person’s digital footprint through their social media, and review personal documents like credit card records and bank statements for information about possible movements.

Gathering Information

One of the first tasks in a disappearance investigation is to establish as much detail about the person, their lifestyle and their habits as possible. This information can guide investigations, contribute to risk assessments and help investigators identify the most likely reasons (or hypotheses) for the person’s absence.

It is often helpful to interview people close to the missing individual, including significant others and family members. This can provide vital clues about where the person may have gone or what they were doing at the time of their disappearance.

Sightings are another source of useful information and it is important that investigators are able to evaluate them appropriately, especially in the context of a case with limited resources. This can include developing a system of grading and summarising sightings to assist with prioritisation.

The disappearance of a loved one can be a distressing and frightening experience. For this reason, it is important that family and friends are open and honest with law enforcement officers when they report the person missing. This can help to reduce stress on those involved, ensure a full investigation is carried out and allow investigators to gather important information.

It is also important that reporting parties do not interfere with the investigation in any way. This includes not removing anything from the person’s home or car, making any changes to their appearance, or travelling to places that they might frequent.

Analyzing and Following the Clues

Once enough clues have been gathered it can be possible to establish a theory about what happened. This can then open up opportunities for additional places to search and people to interview. This is where the investigators will need to focus most of their efforts.

Interviews with close associates can also help police establish a timeline of the missing person’s activities and movements, potentially leading to other witnesses or security footage. Checking financial transactions is another useful tool if you can get access to the missing individual’s records.

Depending on the circumstances, law enforcement agencies may issue public appeals, leverage local media outlets, and seek community help in physical searches. In cases of disappearances that are reported to a state or national agency, they may also collaborate with other government agencies on cross-border investigations.

Depending on the nature of your investigation, the process can be distressing, frustrating and even dangerous. It can involve visiting mass graves or seeing the remains of people who have been subjected to horrific treatment. For this reason it’s important for journalists to make sure they have sufficient support to deal with the heightened stress levels that come with working on these kinds of stories. For instance, it is crucial for them to find a good support network, including mental health professionals, to keep them resilient and focused on the work.