Peru: The tireless search for a missing family member

27-08-2010 Feature

The 20 years of violence which Peru experienced between 1980 and 2000 resulted in the death of thousands of people and the disappearance of more than 15,000. Although many years have passed, thousands of Peruvian families are still suffering from the uncertainty of not knowing what has happened to their loved ones.

  Knitting for hope in Ayacucho, video

  ©ICRC / M. García-Burgos    
Making a scarf is one of the ways which families have found to express their grief and their affection for their missing relatives.    

  ©ICRC / M. García-Burgos    
These women, whose relatives are missing, have finished knitting their part of the scarf.    

Dressed in black as a sign of deep mourning, Lidia Flores receives us in her little house on the outskirts of the town of Ayacucho. For many years she has lived with the constant sorrow of not being able to give her husband, who disappeared in 1984, a dignified burial.

As Lidia has recently undergone an operation, she is frail and can hardly walk. When we met her, she was weaving and embroidering the name of her husband into a piece of material which will form part of a “Scarf of Hope”. Many mothers, wives, daughters and other family members in various places (Huamanga, Cayara, Hualla and Lima) are taking part in this civil society project to weave parts of a scarf which will ultimately measure one kilometre in length.

The purpose of the “Scarf of Hope” is to make the general public aware of a source of distress to many families, especially those in the department of Ayacucho, where the largest number of the victims of the violence of the 1980s and 1990s lived.

Lidia feels that she is remembering her husband by disentangling and spinning the wool and by weaving it into what will become a piece of the scarf. As it takes shape, she sorts out her thoughts.

“My husband, who was a tradesman, had come home after doing his rounds. He left his identity card in the house. It was June 1984. He popped out for a stroll and a patrol took him away. I searched high and low for him, but nobody told me where he was.”

Lidia went to all the police stations in the area and even travelled to Lima with her five small children, thinking that perhaps he had been detained in a prison there. She was intimidated by the unfamiliar city and she suffered the anguish of not find ing her husband and of having to return increasingly unhappy and disillusioned to Ayacucho.

During her tireless search Lidia met more people who were in the same situation. Some of them said that certain places, especially ravines, were strewn with human corpses.

This macabre item of information shook her. She says that in her dreams her husband told her where to look for him. The next day she went to an area a few kilometres outside the town. There she saw a terrible sight; dogs were devouring the remains of several people. She recognized her husband’s clothes – a pair of trousers which she had sewn for him. She picked up all that was left, a skull and carried it away to be buried.

Although in her heart she felt that this sole fragment belonged to her husband, she had no legal document certifying its identity.

“I dug up his little skull and took it to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. They told me that sometimes they changed people’s clothing and that perhaps it wasn’t him. That made me very sad. Then they kept the skull to make a DNA analysis. But the only upshot is that five years have gone by.”

The whole problem of missing persons seems to be an endless labyrinth. Family members have various needs: to know what happened; where the missing person is; to achieve closure of mourning which goes on and on; to receive symbolic and financial compensation as well as justice but, above all, to recover their relatives’ remains and to give them a decent burial.

In Peru the process of searching for missing persons is making slow progress. The Institute of Forensic Medicine reports that, between 2002 and 2009, 1,247 bodies were recovered, 652 of which have been identified.

It is a huge challenge and the missing persons’ relatives are still waiting. Some are weaving as they wait and expressing themselves through their hands, but many are grieving in silence. Some are demanding a speedy process, while othe rs are summoning the strength to continue.

Lidia’s eyes fill with tears when we ask her what she hopes to achieve from this situation and why she does not turn the page and forget her sorrow. Her firm reply is, “It is impossible to forget. It is 26 years since my husband disappeared. I was left on my own with my children and I have suffered a lot. All our plans have been shattered. I have been a father and a mother all these years. I kept hoping that he would return. I kept imagining what he would be like as a little old man. Even if he were ill, I would welcome him back. I would have liked him to be close to my children. I would talk to him as a husband and tell him how I brought them up ... I feel very alone.”

 The ICRC and the issue of missing persons in Peru  

As part of its humanitarian activities the ICRC is striving to ensure that families are informed of the whereabouts of persons who disappeared during the violent period between 1980 and 2000.

  • The ICRC provides technical assistance to the forensic institutions run by the government and civil society. This mainly takes the form of training courses and the supply of a database for exchanging forensic information.

  • It helps government health services to enhance their capacity to offer psycho-social counselling to missing persons’ relatives.

  • It supports associations of missing persons’ families and gives individual family members practical assistance to make the process more dignified and to make it possible for them to participate in forensic investigations and confirm their findings.