Peru: psychosocial support for the relatives of missing persons

02-04-2009 Feature

In forensic anthropology investigation processes, it is during exhumations, clothing exhibitions and restitutions of skeletal remains, among other moments, that the suffering of the relatives of missing persons becomes most evident. It is then that psychosocial and emotional support becomes crucial.

In this connection, the ICRC is sponsoring two projects designed to train local staff of the Ministry of Health and community health promoters in providing psychosocial support for the relatives of missing persons during forensic anthropology investigations. These projects are carried out by the Red Para la Infancia y la Familia and the Asociación Paz y Esperanza.

Milagros Arcos Paredes is the laboratory psychologist for forensic investigations of the Institute of Forensic Medicine (IML), established by the Peruvian Attorney-General's Office. She is in charge of psychosocial support for relatives of the victims of the

internal armed conflict (which took place between 1980 and 2000) for cases relating to Ayacucho and Huancavelica.

  © CICR /pe-e-00372    
  Milagros Arcos Paredes provides psychosocial assistance to the relatives of missing persons.    
    Since her arrival at the IML, in January 2008, she has been in charge of providing the necessary emotional support to relatives when they are present at the opening of a grave or when skeletal remains are handed over. According to Milagros Arcos, " the IML's Specialized Forensic Team noted that there was a gap when relatives broke down emotionally during interviews with the social anthropologist, during exhumations, or when bodies were returned. There was a need for support in all those phases; that was how the need to have a professional on board arose. "

The IML's work in this area is not simple. " Psychologists are human beings who have developed certain inner resources because we have to put ourselves in another person's place, but we cannot become involved, because otherwise we would not be able to help. We have to learn to control our emotions, to rationalize and to help people understand the event that they have experienced, " Arcos explains.

However, her support work is not addressed solely to the relatives of missing persons. The team which performs the forensic anthropology investigation is also under great pressure and in direct contact with suffering. " I remember the case of a colleague who, while analysing the remains of an exhumed victim, found that it was a pregnant woman and was terribly shaken, " the psychologist recounts.

Arcos explains to the relatives of missing persons that they have the right to know what happened to their family members and obtain death certificates for them. She tells them that it is not a question of reliving the events, but rather that, after many years of searching, effort s are being made to return their relatives to them.