Peru: new hope for the relatives of missing persons

02-04-2009 Feature

After 25 years of waiting, relatives of 61 persons who disappeared in Huanta, Ayacucho, in 1984 took part from 9 to 23 March in exhumations and the taking of DNA samples to identify the remains of 50 victims that can later be returned to their relatives.


  © CICR /J.Atauje /pe-e-00369    
  A rural inhabitant of Culluchaca participates in the taking of DNA samples.    
    Viviana Araujo, a resident of the community of Culluchaca, located two hours from the city of Huanta, had to brave the rain and inclement weather of the mountains in order to arrive on time for the start of the exhumations. The public prosecutor's office had summoned her to take part in them since the skeletal remains of her father, Emilio Araujo Romero, who disappeared in 1984, might be among those that the forensic experts would unearth.

Her presence, like that of the other relatives invited, is extremely important for clarifying the identity of the victims. Viviana not only provided all the information on her father's physical description and features — collected on a card before his death — but also paid close attention to the taking of saliva samples in order to determine DNA.

For the families, the recovery of the bodies and the laboratory tests are a ray of hope that their loved ones will be found. But the hopes for a positive identification also reveal an anxiety kept under control for many years.

Because of the disappearances that took place during the armed conflict which Peru experienced in the 1980s, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is endeavouring to raise awareness on the part of the authorities as well as civil society. Among other activities, it is promoting psychosocial support programmes for relatives of missing persons and providing humanitarian assistance to people who have to travel to the exhumation sites.

  © CICR/ J.Atauje /pe-e-00370    
  Relatives march to the Huanta Cemetery to attend exhumations.    
“ " When my papa was taken away, I was left alone with my brothers and my mama. She is alive, but has been sick with worry since my father disappeared; she never got over it. That is why now I have come to see whether I find his body, so that afterwards we can bury him, " Viviana says, amid tears.

On 9 March, with a march from the Huanta Civic Centre to the district General Cemetery, the relatives of more than 61 persons who disappeared in 1984 began the process of exhuming 50 victims of the internal armed conflict who were found in a mass grave in the village of Pucayacu.

More than 43 Culluchaca residents, along with their children and other relatives from the villages of Calqui, Uyuvire, Lucanamarca, Huanta and Huamanga, marched, displaying photographs and calling out the names of the missing.

At the Huanta General Cemetery, the team of experts from the Institute of Forensic Medicine (IML) is in charge of the exhumations, and members of the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team are participating as independent experts. In the course of these exhumations, two graves discovered in August 1984 will be reopened. At the same time, the two institutions will take DNA samples from the immediate relatives that will be used to identify the bodies.


The Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos is assisting 17 families, and the Asociación para el Desarrollo Humano Runamasinchiqpaq (ADEHR), the relatives of another 40 missing persons. Rosa Luz Pallqui, founder of ADEHR and wife of the journalist Jaime Ayala Sulca, a correspondent for La República who also disappeared in 1984, says that the pain is ever present, but so is hope. " During these 25 years, I have been persecuted. I had a three-month-old son, I was studying education, and I had to give everything up in order to care for him, and at the same time I had to fight to find my husband's body, " Rosa Luz says.

" Today, we are meeting again, many of the women who 25 years ago were at the door of the stadium (the former Huanta military base), and we are continuing on together in this effort to find our relatives. My son is following in his father's footsteps as a journalist, and he and I will not rest until my husband's body has been buried in a dignified manner, " Rosa Luz declares.

  © CICR/ J.Atauje /pe-e-00371  
  The first remains found by forensic experts in a mass grave.    

As the first bones begin to appear, the pain returns. Sorrowful faces, tears and suffering are visible. Boris Ayala Pallqui is perhaps the one who most vividly describes the relatives'feelings. " For 25 years, I have had the great pain of not knowing what happened to my father. I feel grief and pent-up frustration because of the years of uncertainty. This is fairly traumatizing, and there are many young people here in the same situation as me. But at the same time, we also have hopes of finding our loved ones'remains, so that we can finally bury them and be able to put flowers on their graves, " Boris says, becoming so upset that he breaks down crying.

The ICRC's main activity in this context is supporting initiatives of various civil society organizations and of the government agencies involved, by providing transportation for the relatives. As a result, family members from Lima, Huamanga, Luricocha and Culluchaca, whose relatives disappeared in Huanta between 7 July and 15 August 1984, have come to the exhumations in the hope of finding their relatives.