Photo: Jose Carlos Thissen / ICRC

Peru: Filling the hole left by missing people in Oronccoy

A community torn apart by violence has had their loved ones returned to them after a wait of 40 years.
Article 04 August 2023 Peru

In Oronccoy, Ayacucho, the remains of 31 missing people have been handed over to their loved ones. However, in a first for handover ceremonies of this kind, reconstructed portraits of 24 missing people were given to family members who had previously had no physical image – a picture or a photo – of their loved ones to remember them by.


These reconstructions were produced as part of the "Portraits from memory" project, which consists of producing portraits of people who went missing in the violence that tore Peru apart between 1980 and 2000. The pictures provide a symbolic form of healing and help to fill the void in people's lives. The ceremony was organized with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which since last year has been actively contributing to the project and is planning more activities across the country.

"We interview people whose loved ones went missing and who don't have a photo of them. We use their memories and photos of other relatives to see the family resemblance and generate the image of the missing person's face," explains Jesús Cossio, the project team's illustrator.

Many families need an image of their loved one while they continue the search. Unfortunately, they do not always have one and this absence cuts deep. The portrait is important for many reasons: to present to the authorities when looking for a missing person, for example, or to have the person in their home and feel they are close.

That is why these reconstructed portraits are so important: they come from the relatives' own memories of the missing person and help them feel closer to them.

A dignified farewell
Ayacucho was the most affected area by the violence that swept Peru from 1980 to 2000. The district of Oronccoy was scarred by the disappearance of so many of its residents and the actions of armed actors 40 years ago.

Many people migrated to other parts of the country in those years and are now returning, repopulating the area once again and contributing to its development. On their return, they are also attending handover ceremonies of human remains – public events that have the support of the whole community.

The ceremonies are carried out by the ICRC in collaboration with the Public Prosecutor's Office and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights' Directorate-General of the Search for Missing Persons. Their humanitarian focus gives families answers to what had happened to their loved ones. They also help them achieve closure, both when the bodies are found and even when they are not.

Fidelia Orihuela Huamán travelled from Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian jungle to Oronccoy in the upper Andes to give a proper funeral to her daughters Erlinda and Xiomara. "Now I can be happy and at peace. I won't have to worry about where they are, how they are. Now I can visit them and light a candle for them, although I still have five more relatives left to find and bury one day," she says.

For many families, having portraits or the physical remains of their loved ones relieves some of the pain they have been feeling for years. Now, they can feel that they are closer to them, together again.