Peru: uncovering the truth

01-09-2008 Feature

On 2 November 1991, the inhabitants of Santo Tomás de Pata, a small rural town in the Huancavelica region, were attacked following their traditional Day of the Dead celebrations. A total of 37 people died, including men, women and children. The survivors had to bury the bodies without identifying them. The families have waited 17 years to be able to mourn their loved ones and give them a proper burial.

©CICR/José Atauje 
Ayacucho. The entrance to the Institute of Forensic Medicine laboratory, August 2008. Relatives of those murdered in 1991 wait to receive the bodies of their loved ones. 
©CICR/José Atauje 
Ayacucho Cathedral. Relatives keep vigil over the bodies of their loved ones.    
©CICR/José Atauje 
Santo Tomás de Pata. The funeral procession arrives at the cemetery.    
©CICR/José Atauje 
Santo Tomás de Pata. Relatives perform the funeral rites. 

From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, a bitter armed conflict was fought in Peru between the Shining Path and government forces. The conflict had serious consequences for the rural population of Angaraes Province in the Huancavelica region. Suspected of collaborating with one side or the other, many suffered indiscriminate attacks.

The Day of the Dead is a traditional celebration that takes place in many Latin American countries. The residents of Santo Tomás de Pata had gathered in their local cemetery to honour their ancestors, as is the tradition. On leaving the cemetery, they were attacked by an armed group. According to information from the Peruvian Institute of Forensic Medicine, 37 people of all ages were killed, including men, women and children.

The survivors took refuge in the hills. Once the danger had passed, they returned to recover the bodies, and buried them in three unmarked graves. They did not identify any of the bodies, or carry out any ceremonial rituals, for fear that the parties to the conflict would mistreat the bodies.

Many years later, the supra provincial criminal prosecutor's office in Huancavelica ordered an investigation into deaths in the region between 1984 and 1991. As part of this investigation, the remains of these 37 people were exhumed.

On 8 August 2008, 17 years after the original events took place, the remains were returned to the families, who kept vigil over them in Huamanga Cathedral, Ayacucho, in accordance with their customs. “Their souls can finally rest in peace – and so can we, now that our long anxious wait has come to an end,” said one of the relatives.

The bodies were returned in the labo ratory of the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Ayacucho, under the authority of the public prosecutor’s office. Several organizations and public institutions joined forces to ensure that the families received the bodies in a dignified manner. The International Committee of the Red Cross helped the relatives travel to Huamanga; the ombudsman’s office provided the coffins; the district municipality arranged transportation for the coffins; and staff from the ministry of health's health network lent emotional support.

Most of the relatives who came to collect the bodies were women, who had been left to bear the burden of supporting their families alone. In August 2008, they also found themselves carrying the coffins of their loved ones on their shoulders, taking them to their final resting place in Santo Tomás de Pata.