Armed Conflicts, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-PERU: Following the Clues in Exhumation of Massacre Victims

Milagros Salazar

DOCE CORRAL, Peru, Jul 13 2011 (IPS) - The daylight is fading, but Francisca Huanca’s hopes are growing brighter. “Yes, they’re his sneakers, he liked to play football,” she says with tears in her eyes. She has just caught a glimpse of the remains of her husband, nearly three decades after he was murdered in the biggest massacre committed by the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas in Peru’s highlands.

Women from Sicuani at exhumation of the remains of their loved ones.  Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

Women from Sicuani at exhumation of the remains of their loved ones. Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

Huanca is 67, and her slight stature – just one and a half metres tall, and thin – gives her a fragile look. But she has not hesitated to come here, to a mass grave in Doce Corral, a freezing windswept spot over 4,000 metres above sea level where two families tend to hundreds of grazing alpaca in the southern Andean region of Ayacucho.

She arrived on Jun. 21 after a 15-hour drive from Sicuani, her hometown in the nearby province of Cuzco. She was accompanied by eight fellow townspeople who also decided to return for the exhumation of the remains of their loved ones killed in the Jul. 16, 1984 massacre committed during the 1980-2000 civil war between the Shining Path and government forces and their paramilitary allies.

On that day in 1984, a group of between 30 and 40 members of the Shining Path used pickaxes, hammers, stones and guns to slaughter around 100 villagers at several locations in the south of Ayacucho province, in a case known as the “bus of death”.

The guerrillas, disguised in military and police uniforms, had hijacked the bus that runs to the highlands in the south of Ayacucho province from Lima every Monday, and made a macabre tour from 7:00 AM to midnight, stopping in each town and village where the local authorities and community leaders had refused to join the Shining Path.

The bones talk

The victims included at least a dozen traders from the market town of Sicuani, who happened to be in Doce Corral at the time, buying alpaca wool. Alejandro Aguilar, Huanca’s husband, was one of the traders who never came home.

“I was left on my own with my small children. One of them was just eight months old,” Huanca says as she shows IPS photographs of her family, her husband’s identity card, and their marriage certificate.

She is crying, but is obviously very strong. She was fully aware that by coming to Doce Corral for the exhumation of the remains of her husband and other victims from Sicuani by the forensic experts and staff from the public prosecutor’s office, she would be delving into her own pain.

The exhumation of common graves is part of the process of clarifying what happened that day, returning the bodies to their families for proper burial, and bringing those responsible to justice.

The bones of the dead talk: they reveal how the victims were killed, the wounds they suffered, the last frozen expressions on their faces.

The clothing is still intact, and provides the clues needed to jog the memory of the victims’ family members, of the last time they saw their loved ones. Huanca has always remembered the red wool sweater her husband was wearing when they said good-bye that day in Sicuani.

The first day of digging did not bring the expected results: the forensic experts excavated a grave believing they would find Alejandro Aguilar’s body, which wasn’t there. Only the next day, after Huanca had an anxious, sleepless night, were his remains found in a nearby grave.

“It’s very complex to exhume a clandestine cemetery because there is no information on the location of the graves,” forensic archaeologist Marcela Ramírez with the Andean Centre for Forensic Anthropology Research (CENIA), who is leading the team of experts, told IPS.

“You can only base your work on people’s memories, which is why it is important to carry out a good preliminary investigation, to avoid digging around in vain and raising people’s expectations,” she explained.

CENIA has been carrying out this work for the non-governmental Human Rights Commission (COMISEDH) and the Sicuani Catholic vicariate, which have supported the families of the victims of Ayacucho and Cuzco in their struggle for justice.

Since 2005, the two organisations have been pushing the public prosecutor’s office to investigate the case, but not until 2009 did the Ayacucho prosecutor’s office launch the investigation.

COMISEDH and CENIA have worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) that investigated the abuses committed during the armed conflict, to help locate mass graves.

Ayacucho, one of the poorest and most remote, rural and heavily indigenous parts of the country, accounted for a full 47 percent of the nearly 70,000 people killed in the civil war, according to the CVR report issued in 2003. The Commission held Shining Path responsible for 54 percent of the killings.

After the CVR completed its work, COMISEDH and CENIA continued their investigations, documenting 99 victims of the “bus of death” and 34 burial sites expected to hold the remains of 72 people.

The case is especially complicated given the remote location – over 25 hours by car from the capital of Ayacucho; the number of years that have gone by since the killings; and the way they were carried out, with bodies buried at different spots along the route taken by the hijacked bus. Moreover, some of the victims are still missing.

In the face of so many obstacles, the victims’ families and the authorities have had to be extremely dedicated to pushing forward with the case.

The latest exhumation is an illustration of the difficulties: of the more than 20 bodies that the team expected to find, only 15 were found between Jun. 20-29 – four victims from Sicuani and the rest from villages near Doce Corral.

Furthermore, the government forensic team had to call off its work early due to logistical challenges and because it failed to find family members to approve further exhumations.

Waiting for closure

Ayacucho provincial assistant prosecutor Carlos Antonio Zaravia, who has overseen the exhumation work, promised the families of the victims from Sicuani to hand over the remains to them shortly, after the lab results have been compared to the information gathered in the preliminary investigation. “That could take five or six months, if DNA tests are not needed,” he told IPS.

Despite the wait, some have already begun to find closure in their grieving process. The Sinsaya family from Sicuani managed to identify the clothing of Leonardo Sinsaya, another of the victims.

His widow Teófila, who is now 64, and his 54-year-old brother Esteban and 45-year-old sister Benedicta, spotted the beige jacket Leonardo was wearing that day, the red and blue sweater he knitted himself, and the grey slacks he usually wore. His hands had been tied behind his back, and his wide open mouth indicated that the last sound heard from Leonardo was a scream of terror.

“He suffered a lot when he died, now we have found that out, with a great deal of pain,” Benedicta tells IPS. “But at the same time we are more at peace now because we know it’s him.”

Her brother Esteban says that after they found Leonardo’s remains, he “saw” his brother saying good-bye. “I saw him dressed in a brown suit, he smiled at me and said ‘you don’t know anything, don’t say anything’, said good-bye and went through a large green door,” he says, sobbing.

Esteban Sinsaya saw this vision during a group therapy session led by psychologist Joni Muñoz with the government’s Integral Reparations Programme. The psychologist came to Doce Corral with the family members from Sicuani to help them process their pain.

The families of the victims from Sicuani have become very close. They help each other out and provide each other with support. In Doce Corral, they pray over every corpse that is unearthed and make traditional coca leaf offerings.

They have shared the same pain for the last 27 years, and for at least some of them, the search for the remains of their loved ones has finally come to an end.

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