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Wednesday, 10 April, 2002, 15:14 GMT 16:14 UK
Analysis: Peru confronts the past
andean countryside shot
Most deaths occurred in remote country villages
By South American affairs analyst Nick Caistor

Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is investigating the deaths of some 30,000 people killed in political violence between 1980 and 2000.

One of the first witnesses, Angelica Mendoza, told the commission: "Hooded armed men burst into our house early in the morning," . "They took my son from his bed. I never saw him again. And no-one ever told me who was responsible."

Former President Fujimori denies that guerrillas were executed
Angelica's son was one of many thousands of Peruvians accused of being linked to subversive groups like Shining Path. They were taken from their homes and killed during the Peruvian state's fight against rebels in the countryside.

During much of the 1980s and 1990s, many regions of the Andean nation were delcared in a state of emergency, and the armed forces given sweeping powers.

Seeking justice

Human rights groups have repeatedly claimed that they abused these powers to kill and torture thousands of innocent Peruvians.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was ratified in September 2001 to investigate the alleged human rights abuses committed by all sides of the conflict from 1980 - when Shining Path rebels "declared war on the Peruvian state" - to the flight of President Fujimori and his intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos in 2000.

Only if we can complete this process of having the greatest number of ordinary Peruvians tell us what happened to them can there be peace and the possibility of justice

Commission president Salomon Lerner
"The remit of the commission is first of all to try to explain why these abuses happened," commission president Salomon Lerner told BBC News Online.

"Then we have to find out what exactly did happen, and if possible find out who was to blame. If we can establish that, there is the chance that those responsible can be brought to justice."

As part of this task, the commission has also begun to exhume bodies in remote Andean villages where it is said mass killings took place.

"When the first remains were dug up, what the village women recognised were bits of textiles, a hatband, a woven shirt - that was how they could identify their loved ones," commission member Father Gaston Garatea said.

Guilt and remorse

"After the bodies were reburied properly, the village mayor told us everyone felt a new sense of peace, because members of the community who had been buried like dogs had finally been treated with dignity, and the whole village felt at rest after 19 years."

This attempt to give people back their sense of dignity and peace is one of the most important tasks of the commission, according to Salomon Lerner.

The commission is a response to widespread calls for justice
"We will present our final report in mid-2003," he told BBC News Online. "But equally important is the process of collecting individual testimonies, making people feel that someone wants to hear their story.

"Only if we can complete this process of having the greatest number of ordinary Peruvians tell us what happened to them can there be peace and the possibility of justice.

"And it is only then that there can be a start to reconciliation, and perhaps the more private process of admitting to feelings of remorse and guilt," Salomon Lerner said.

The commission's final report is due to be presented to the Peruvian government in July 2003, and could form the basis for prosecutions and for reparations to be paid to innocent victims.

See also:

08 Apr 02 | Americas
Peruvian peasants recount atrocities
23 Feb 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
Peru stymied in search for truth
26 May 01 | Americas
Peru to create truth commission
14 Mar 01 | Americas
Peru experts examine exhumed rebels
25 Mar 01 | Americas
Death squad arrests in Peru
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