Page last updated at 02:17 GMT, Thursday, 12 June 2008 03:17 UK

Peruvians seek relatives in mass grave

By Dan Collyns
BBC News, Ayacucho, Peru

Relatives pray in Putis, Peru
The grave's excavation has given relatives hope of finding loved ones

Twenty-four years is a long time to hold on to the memory of a murdered loved one without knowing if you will ever find out what happened to them, or where their body is.

And for most of the relatives of the victims exhumed in Peru's biggest mass grave, the possibility of finding justice for their murders would have been buried alongside them.

According to the findings of Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2003, those victims - exactly 123 men, women and children - were buried in the remote hamlet of Putis.

In a high mountain valley in Ayacucho, Putis is several hours' drive, along a steep dirt road with hairpin bends, from the nearest town. Nowadays, it is deserted.

The Peruvian Forensic Anthropology team (EPAF) has set up camp among the derelict stone buildings, sharing the bitterly cold nights with a platoon of soldiers stationed there because the settlement lies on a route for drug-traffickers bringing cocaine from the Amazon jungle to the coast.

Despite its remoteness, the testimony of relatives made the main grave easy to find.

It was shallow and, on excavation, revealed a twisted mass of skulls, bones and the remains of the clothing people were wearing on the day they were killed.

Embedded bullets

"There are a large number of children of all ages - from very young children to nine and 10 years old," says Jose Pablo Baraybar, the EPAF director leading the exhumation.


Relatives of the victims grieve at the site of the discovery

"We have already found evidence that people may have been shot while in the grave, we have found bullets under the bodies embedded in the dirt."

The victims - all peasant farmers from the area - had been tricked by the military, who had set up a base in Putis, into digging their own grave.

In 1983 the region, Huanta, was controlled by the Shining Path - a brutal Maoist guerrilla group who had declared war on the state. They had killed all the local officials and the people had fled to the mountain peaks.

In November 1984, the army set up its base in Putis and invited the local population to live there under their protection. They asked them to dig a fish pond; then on 13 December they killed everyone and buried them there.

After the massacre, the soldiers sold off the villagers' livestock, according the 2003 commission report.

Coming home

News of the exhumation has spread and Leonilda Cusiche is one of the first of a group of relatives to arrive in Putis, having trekked for hours over the mountains.

Map of Peru

Speaking Quechua, Peru's indigenous language, she explains that she is looking for her sister who, she believes, is in the grave.

With a stoical expression she recounts how, aged 14, she and her family fled the Shining Path after they killed her mother, and hid in mountain caves.

But the army were hunting them down too on suspicion that they were rebels. Shortly afterwards soldiers killed her father and two sisters.

She managed to escape with her younger sister but they became separated and Ms Cusiche believes she died in the massacre in Putis.

At the prospect of visiting the grave she begins to cry, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "Opening up the grave is like re-opening the wound," she says.

Forensic biologists have pitched a tent, where they take DNA samples from the relatives to help them identify the remains in the grave.

The forensic team has carefully removed remains of about 70 people so they can be individually identified.

There is also evidence of about five other graves nearby; one in the old school and even one inside the walls of the stone church, which now stands roofless and covered with weeds.

Aurelio Condoray (left) with relatives, in Putis, Peru
Aurelio Condoray (left) wants to give his dead relatives a Christian burial

Aurelio Condoray says he lost about 80 members of his family in the violence of that period. He, like many, stayed away for years.

He settled in the jungle, returning only to find the area abandoned.

Only now, he says, his gentle eyes widening with excitement, may he return.

"I want to bury my mother and brothers, to give them a Christian burial so they can finally have peace," he says.

More than 20 years may have passed, but the grief is still raw. The relatives gather at the graveside and begin to weep. Some point as if they recognise a scrap of clothing amid the skeletal remains.

As they sob, they mutter to themselves and their dead. Finally, heads bowed and hats off, they join in a communal prayer which lasts for several minutes.

'Just silence'

Without truth, can there be reconciliation?

In 2003, Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that nearly 70,000 people had been killed or had disappeared during the state's war against the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) insurgencies between 1980 and 2000.

Remains excavated in the mass grave at Putis, Peru
Forensic biologists are removing remains so they can be identified

Few doubt that the army was ordered to kill anyone suspected of being a member of a rebel group. But it is hard to understand the logic which would lead them to kill young children, unless they wanted to eliminate witnesses.

No-one has been indicted for the massacre in Putis. When the judiciary asked for information about the events or who was in command in late 1984, the response was that all documentation had been destroyed in a fire.

"No-one has justified anything - what there is around this is just silence," says Mr Baraybar.

"The military are not denying anything, they just refuse to give explanations - and explanations must be given."

It had been hoped the largest exhumation in Peruvian history might spur efforts to investigate the fate of about 15,000 Peruvians who disappeared in the "dirty war" - only a fraction of whom have ever been accounted for.

Far more disappeared in Peru than in neighbouring Chile during its military dictatorship. The difference in Peru was that many of those people were officially less than full citizens: undocumented, illiterate and indigenous.

But painstakingly, Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission through the testimony of such people revealed the existence of atrocities which would otherwise have never been brought to light.

The cause of the disappeared in Argentina and Chile have become examples of pursuing justice for crimes of the past long after the end of army rule.

Perhaps Peru could be as enlightened as its neighbour Chile where, in 2004, the commanding general of the army assumed the responsibility of his institution for the crimes committed during the military dictatorship.

No such admission has been made in Peru which, arguably, has more reason to accept responsibility as these atrocities did not occur during a military dictatorship but under democratically-elected governments.

Peru recovers mass grave bodies
26 May 08 |  Americas
Peru struggles with its dark past
10 Dec 07 |  Americas
Profile: Peru's Shining Path
05 Nov 04 |  Americas
Timeline: Peru
22 Sep 07 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Peru
12 May 07 |  Country profiles

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