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Peru: Buried But Not Forgotten on International Day of the Disappeared PDF Print E-mail
Written by C. Edward Anable   
Thursday, 18 September 2008 05:20

On a cold December night in 1984 in Putis, Peru more than 100 men, women, and children were forced to dig their own graves before being executed with automatic weapons and then buried in shallow earth. What is not known are the identities of the victims or who ordered the massacres or why. Almost 24 years later at least one of these questions has begun to be answered.

Community members with local prosecutor, EPAF and Paz y Esperanza members. (Alain Wittman)

In May of 2008, scientists working with the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team, EPAF (Equipo Peruano de Antropologia Forense) exhumed the bodies of the victims murdered that night outside the town of Putis, which is in the central Andes.

After three months of forensic investigation, enough evidence had been collected to begin the two-part process of individual identification. Organized by the civil NGO, EPAF, the first part was held in conjunction with the International Day of the Disappeared on August 30th 2008, in the Ayacucho region of Peru. It marked the beginning of a 6-day exhibition of the victims' clothing and personal effects unearthed at Putis. The presentation began in the town of Huanta before moving on to Santillana and ending in Putis. To date, over 20 identifications have been made by the victims' families and 80 post-mortem forms have been filed.

August 30th also marked the first ecumenical address in Latin America, in which a catholic priest and an evangelical pastor railed against the violence and lack of social justice in the region to a crowd of more than 500 people, many of them family members of the deceased.

Community members at the exhumation (Alain Wittman)

The victims of the Putis massacre, some as young as six years of age, were most likely killed by paramilitary forces sent to the Ayacucho region to combat the Maoist Communist group Sendero Luminoso, in the decades-long conflict.

The International Day of the Disappeared also launched the second phase of EPAF's identification process. With funding from the International Red Cross and U.S. State Department, EPAF has collected DNA samples from the bone and teeth of the deceased and saliva from the victims' families in an effort to substantiate the identification of those massacred.

EPAF contracted with the BODE Technology Group, the same company that prepared the DNA for Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 victims in the United States, to run the DNA tests which are scheduled to be completed in December 2008. Until then, the final number of victims will not be known. Further, through a chain of custody with the local prosecutors in Ayacucho, the DNA results from BODE laboratories and the forensic fieldwork conducted by EPAF will be handed over to Peruvian officials to be used in any future criminal prosecutions.

Family members watch as Putis victims are exhumed. (Alain Wittman)

EPAF remains unbiased and objective even in the harshest of conditions. While in excavating in Putis, they had to have armed guards provided by the army in order to insure their safety. Even then, the 17-member team could hear gunshots nearby. Yet it is not the mission of EPAF to secure justice. As said by founding member Carmen Rosa, "We provide information only; objective, clear information-justice is up to the families, the prosecutors and the state."

EPAF remains committed to collecting and analyzing data from the post mortem sites of more than 14,000 people still missing from Peru's civil conflict. However, EPAF is also aware that their work is a large part of providing closure.

"For the families of the victims, these events create an emotional hole," said Carmen Rosa.

August 30th was the culmination of the efforts of EPAF, La Paz y Esperanza, and the victims' families to begin to heal from those wounds. In fact, if not for the family members themselves, the Truth Commission, the Peruvian government, and the world, would be unaware of the atrocities committed that night. Through ceaseless effort, through language barriers, through difficult terrain, the families of those massacred that night have fought for 24 years to bring about awareness and justice.

Exhumation site. (Alain Wittman)

The International Day of the Disappeared is a day of commemoration for missing people from conflicts all over the world. It creates solidarity, discourse and education; natural enemies to injustice and violence. However, in the end, what matters most is a sense of closure.

In Putis, to be able to identify, finally, who was killed on that cold night in December remains the important goal. The why is left to the State, now armed with the evidence collected by EPAF and where the state goes from there will be up to them. Meanwhile EPAF carries on in its mission to identify and track the estimated 17,000 missing people in Peru.

C. Edward Anable is a freelance writer living and working in Peru. All photos courtesy of Alain Wittmann.

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