If I don’t come back, look for me in Putis: bodies of “disappeared” returned to families 25 years after massacre

Amidst tears and cries of pain, the remains of 92 people murdered and buried in a mass grave by the Peruvian military in 1984 were returned to their loved ones in the highland city of Ayacucho on Wednesday.

Of the 92 remains exhumed from the mass grave, only 28 have been formally identified.

“Science, right now, doesn’t allow us to identify any other remains,” said José Pablo Baraybar, Director of Peru’s Forensic Anthropology Team, or EPAF. “The mass grave was full of bodies, and most of them were being eaten-away by roots. Because of this, it’s a great success that we have been able to identify some of the remains.”

Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that more than 69,000 people were killed during the nation’s 1980−2000 internal armed conflict, in which thousands of poor campesinos were caught in the crossfire between a bloody Maoist Shining Path insurgency and brutal government backlash.

In the case of Putis, according to testimonies gathered by the Commission, soldiers from the military base of Putis persuaded villagers from the towns of Cayramayo, Vizcatánpata, Orccohuasi and Putis, who in fear of rebel attacks had abandoned their homes and communities and fled higher into the mountains, to come to Putis to start a new life. Held at gunpoint, the men were ordered to dig a large trench, ostensibly for trout farm pools. The men, women and children were then forced into the pit and shot dead.

According to Baraybar, at least 39 people were killed by firearms, and at least 40 percent of the victims were children, and 41 percent were women.

After the massacre, the military sold the villagers’ livestock and pocketed the proceeds.

Despite the testimonies to the Commission, and a soldier’s testimony published by La Republica daily in 2001, no one has yet been indicted. The military claims that all related documentation was destroyed in a fire.

“We urge the D.A. to pursue the investigation and press charges against not only those who ordered the massacre, but those who shot our family members dead,” said Florencio Quispe, President of the Association of those Affected by the Political Violence in Putis.

Independently-funded EPAF began the exhumation and a full video-documented investigation of the Putis burial site in May 2008. Other similar mass graves are suspected to lie beneath the vegetation inside Putis’ military base.

The excavation and DNA testing in Putis were funded by a grant from the Latin American Initiative for the Identification of the Disappeared, funded by the U.S. Department of State and its Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

EPAF, which is not funded by the Peruvian government, has already documented more than 13,000 disappearances and was the first to introduce international standards for a Forensic Anthropology Investigation in Peru in 2001, uses state of the art technology. Computer programs allow the scientists to determine with more than 70 percent accuracy the sex of a cadaver according to the dimensions of its skull.

Baraybar, who headed the UN office for missing persons and forensics in Kosovo for several years, has been working on key forensic cases since his return to Peru, including several in Ayacucho, the remains in Lima of the MRTA rebels who led the kidnapping in 1997 at the Japanese Embassy, and the remains of the victims of the La Cantuta and Barrios Altos murders. He is also co-author of Skeletal Trauma, which describes the identification of injuries resulting from human rights abuse and armed conflict.

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