During two decades of internal violence in Peru in the 1980s and 90s, thousands of people died and 15,000 have been reported missing. Ten years on from the end of violence, great efforts have been made in Peru to respond to the needs of the surviving families.
However, fewer than 10% of the missing have been identified and their mortal remains returned to their families. Thousands of people are agonisingly uncertain over the fate of a family membe
On the international day of the disappeared (30th August), the ICRC stresses the need for community and government support for these families and for a simplification of the legal process involved in exhuming and identifying the remains.
Capital of Huamanga Province, the city of Ayacucho was at the heart of 20 years of violence in which villagers were caught in the middle between state forces and the Shining Path and other armed groups. A decade after the violence ended, the ICRC is assisting families of the missing to find out the fate of their loved ones and to support them through this painful process.
Collecting Mortal Remains
Raul Salvatierra Bautista and his sister Marina have waited over 25 years for this day. They are collecting the remains of their mother and sister from the Peruvian Forensic Institute in Ayacucho. The Shining Path killed their mother and sister in 1984. Raul and Marina survived because they were at school at the time of the attack.
Most of the surviving families are too poor to afford the costs of travel and burial. ICRC helps with costs and provides the coffins so that families can receive the mortal remains with dignity. Before this, bodies were returned in cardboard boxes. Raul and Marina, like many families of the disappeared in Peru, are still hoping for compensation - a process that would be helped by having the correct paperwork and death certificates.
The process surrounding identifying bodies is lengthy and complex. Even once the body has been exhumed, it can take a year or more before the legal and forensic work is complete and the family can collect the mortal remains. The ICRC works with family associations to support people like Raul and Marina as they go through this process. It is also working with the judiciary to try to simplify the complex legal process.
Left in limbo
Rafael Barrantes, ICRC Officer for the Missing Programme in Peru (Responsible Programa Personas desaparacidos y sus familias) says: "After nearly 25 years of waiting, the families of the disappeared are still living with uncertainty and pain without knowing the fate of loved ones who disappeared. This causes lots of suffering. Although deep down they know they are probably dead, they still live with the hope that some day they will knock at their door." Without the remains and proof of death, families are unable to move on, remarry, claim inheritance or simply conduct funeral rights.
As Raul Salvatierra Bautista stands vigil over the coffins of his mother and sister he explains, "It is very important for us to know and to finally give them a Christian burial. When we were children, we felt nothing but sadness and loneliness....I finally have my mother and my sister in my home. I welcome them with lots of love."
The ICRC is the only humanitarian organisation with forensic expertise offering technical advice and funding forensic training.. So far, 539 bodies have been exhumed, identified and returned.
The ICRC supports counselling and social support programmes, which are essential for relatives of the disappeared. It provides training to health workers, such as Isabel Balbin. Lidia Flores is one of the 300 women Isabel visits and counsels.
Lidia Flores lost her husband in 1984. He was 32 when he
was arrested and disappeared, leaving their five children without a father. In the days after he disappeared, Lidia says she dreamt of her husband telling her to look for his body. She believes she found his skull and some of his clothing, saying she recognized the stitching she had used to shorten his trousers but her personal identification has never been recognized in law, and the rest of his body has never been found. His disappearance haunts her.
Like many of the surviving family members, Lidia's problems are practical as well as emotional: "I am in debt with two banks and I do not have enough for my children. I have suffered too much."
Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified over 4,600 burials sites and the exhumation process has begun of a number of mass graves. Counsellor Isabel Balbin explains: "As social workers, we always take part in the exhumation process, accompanying the women who are victims of political violence because their emotions are overwhelming and when someone is by their side, they feel they are not alone."
Knitting for hope
In the centre of Ayacucho, mothers, daughters and sisters gather to create a memorial to their disappeared relatives. This knitting 'marathon' is a chance to share experiences and exchange information. It is also a type of 'soft protest' which gives the women recognition and a voice.
One woman says: "For me, as the wool unwinds, it releases what I have bottled up since my father's disappearance."
Another woman says: "I feel peaceful here. We meet with other women and it's like a therapy. We laugh together. We talk together."
Men are more likely than women to go missing, whether as soldiers or civilians, leaving not only an emotional void but also often financial difficulties.
Rafael Barrantes, ICRC Officer for the Missing Programme in Peru says: "They need to know the different processes and which ones best suit them. They need the bodies to be recovered. They need to make informed decisions to resolve their inheritance claims. Also, dignity is an important aspect - that the remains are given back in coffins to allow the rituals and burials to have sufficient dignity."
A worldwide issue
Supporting families of missing people is a priority for the ICRC. It seeks to ensure that the needs of families of the missing are met at every level, including legal, financial, social and psychological. The organization tries to locate family members. This may involve visiting places of detention, hospitals or morgues or asking the authorities to investigate.
The problem of the missing spans the globe, affecting millions of people. Wherever there is an armed conflict, people go missing. Under international humanitarian law, families have the right to be informed on the fate of missing relatives and parties to a conflict have a responsibility to search for the missing and facilitate enquiries made by families of the missing.