Peru: Relatives of missing persons search for clues

09-09-2008 Feature

Hoping to find out what happened to her daughter who disappeared 24 years ago, Marcelina made her way to the Huanta Civic Centre to examine some 500 items of clothing that were on display there. The clothing was found with the remains of 90 bodies discovered in mass graves in Putis, a village in southern Peru, last May. It was to be exhibited a few days later in Santillana and Putis.

© CICR / Dafne Martos/pe-e-00361 
Marcelina searches among the garments on display for clothes belonging to her daughter, who disappeared 24 years ago. 
©CICR / José Atauje/pe-e-00360 
Another woman from Putis looks for traces of her loved ones. 
©CICR / José Atauje/pe-e-00359 
Some of the clothes found among the remains were clearly those of children. 

Hundreds of people, including relatives of missing persons, representatives of family associations and local authorities, came to view the clothing and to express their sadness and outrage at the discovery. Such exhibitions are one of the means used by the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF) to identify human remains. The EPAF is officially in charge of investigating cases of missing persons.

Her face streaked with tears, Marcelina examined each item she saw several times, touching it and smelling it. While she searched for something belonging to her daughter Rita, who went missing at age ten, other people filed past the clothing in an attempt to recognize items that relatives were wearing on the day they last saw them. Dozens of items clearly belonged to infants and small children. " How could a child be guilty of anything? " someone said softly in Quechua. " They could only have been killed out of sheer malice. "

  • As part of its activities to establish the fate of missing persons, the ICRC helps train forensic experts. It also assists institutions in setting up computer-assisted antemortem and postmortem databases.

  • The ICRC provides support for and accompanies relatives of missing persons taking part in exhumations, clothing exhibitions and the return of mortal remains. It helps families to pay for transport and coffins and, if necessary, assists them in dealing with relevant authorities and organizations.

  • The clothing exhibition held in Huanta, Santillana and Putis provided an opportunity for family associations to exchange experiences and discuss issues such as how to strengthen the organizations that support them and boost solidarity for their cause.
In Putis the exhibition was held in an open area of Mashuacancha, a hamlet nestled near the river that runs through the district. People from nearby villages began to arrive as early as dawn. Entire families, including children, sometimes bringing their animals with them, came in the hope of finding the remains of missing relatives and being able to give their loved ones " a decent burial " and " at last put their souls to rest. "

During the five days that the exhibition lasted, clothing belonging to 20 different people were identified by relatives, who provided the EPAF with further information for cross-checking against an existing antemortem database.

EPAF experts also took saliva samples from relatives for DNA testing and collected information about persons who had gone missing in other places. In all, 80 new antemortem files were established.

The exhibition, which coincided with International Day of the Disappeared on 30 August, was held on the initiative and thanks to the efforts of the EPAF and the Asociación Paz y Esperanza. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) helped by providing transportation for family members.

The opening of the exhibition in Huanta was attended by, among others, the mayor of the provincial capital and representatives of the public prosecutor's office, the regional ombudsman's office, the National Reparations Council, the Asociación Paz y Esperanza, the EPAF, the ICRC and various associations of victims of Ayacucho, Apurímac and Lima.

If the cross-checking leads to positive identification, EPAF experts say that mortal remains could be handed over to the families by the end of the year. For the moment, Marcelina can only hope. The gaping wound that has ca used her so much pain over the years cannot begin to close until she has buried her little girl's remains.