Journey to Chungui: Recovering remains from Peru's conflict

17 DECEMBER 2013

What follows is a translation of an article that appeared in La República on 4 December 2013, written by Miguel Mejía Castro. It reveals in graphic detail the evidence gleaned from exhumations in the province of La Mar, Ayacucho, and what they tell us about the victims’ cruel deaths.

For ten days, La República accompanied a team of archaeologists and forensic scientists from the Public Prosecutor’s Office on a journey to the area known as the Dog’s Ear (Oreja del Perro) in the district of Chungui. The mission was to recover the human remains of children and women tortured and killed in the 1980s by armed combatants.

The first thing that the forensic team found was the cartridge case on which ‘FAME 77’ (Fábrica de Armas y Munciones del Ejército) was engraved. Three hours later they discovered buried in 15 cms of earth the skeleton of a child of about three years old. The grave still preserved the red jumper worn as the child breathed its last back in 1986. This was the year when survivors attest to the killing perpetrated here, in a place called Suyrurupampa. Another four graves were identified here by the Equipo Forense Escpecializado (EFE) from the Public Prosecutor’s office. The whole area measures about the size of a volleyball pitch, and what was found here was truly horrendous: the remains of three children of between two and 16, and two women of between 25 and 40. They were probably shot and then dismembered, gathering from the marks that the specialists discovered on the bones. Another 77 calibre cartridge case turns up.

The exhumation is taking place in Chungui, a district in the province of La Mar in Ayacucho where the Public Prosecutor calculates that 1,384 people died between 1983 and 1994, the victims of Sendero Luminoso, of the self-defence organisations (or ronderos, organised by the armed forces) and members of the security forces and/or police. This is the most ambitious forensic expedition ever undertaken in Peru, revealing the most horrific face of the country’s political violence.

Whilst the archaeologists clean the skeletons from Sururupampa in the ditches, aluminium hair clips appear, a girl’s sandals made of rubber, hair ties for pigtails, a plate and metal pan. Moreover, the bones are still clad in jumpers, skirts and multi-colour belts. But what is best preserved is the copper colour of the cartridge cases.

We arrived here after a 15 hour journey by truck from Andahuaylas to the village of Amaybamba in Cuzco region. Here we were met by Valentín Casa Quispe, a young muleteer of 36 whose mules carry all the luggage and the equipment for the exhumations. He has the added motive in supporting the team since he believes that in one of the graves he will find the remains of his mother. She was assassinated in 1986 when he was nine.

With Valentín we set out on the 14 hour hike by mule track that zig-zags down the wall of the canyon to the River Apurímac. Having crossed this torrent by the bridge at Pumaccasa, we moved into the district of Chungui climbing up to the village of Huallhua, 2,284 metres above sea level. The EFE team selects an improvised office where they work out the finer details. We have to walk another five hours southwards to reach Suyrurupampa where we set to work on the first graves.

As the sun set here, we explored the fourth grave, and two rings appear between some bones. Valentín tells the specialists that this is his mother. He recalls that the last time he saw the rusty ring was on her fingers, those of Elena Quispe Alarcón. She was executed along with her sister Juana and Juana’s daughter. Standing in the ditch, Valentín looks at how two bare bones between the fingers protrude through the rings. However, he sheds not a tear. “I have wept almost all my life; it was here that my father and I buried their bodies, two days after the ronderos and the army patrol from Mollebamba had murdered them”, he says.

The camp that housed the team for four days, some 80 metres from the graves, is finally dismantled and we return to Huallhua with the gruesome cargo loaded onto the backs of eight mules. In one of the classrooms at the only primary school in the village, the bones are stowed away into cardboard boxes. Twelve of the 25-strong EFE team sleep in that same classroom, anthropologists, archaeologists, orthodontists, biologists and two officials from the Public Prosecutor’s office in Ayacucho.

Chaupimayo

The following day, half of the group moved off to Chaupimayo, a place of tangled vegetation in the midst of the mountains, five hours from Huallha. A luxuriant mango tree provides shadow for what is known as Grave 2. The archaeologist Dannal Arumburú spends five hours working away at the scene of the crime with his pen-knife, brush and trowel. It’s no easy task to separate the soil from the bones of what appears to be a woman with her small girl. The roots have lived off their corpses for 29 years, penetrating the fibres of their clothing, the cracks in their limbs, the hollows of their skulls, anchoring them to the subsoil.

Before finishing off and storing the remains in carefully labelled bags, the archaeologist lifts up a neck bone, then two more, dusts them with a fine brush and remarks “the incisions in the vertebrae show possible death by having their throats cut.” The girl was around six and the woman more than 25. “We’ll establish their exact age in the lab,” he adds. The official from the public prosecutor’s office in Ayacucho jots it down in her notebook.

Eugenia Quispe Sánchez, 35, is there and recalls the full horror of this massacre. “I was seven years old in 1984 and I hid in the vegetation when I saw how the soldiers killed my sister, Juana Quispe Sánchez. And here, near to the river, they told me how this had happened to various people, including my half-sister Julia Montes Sánchez along with her two-year old baby."

The woman pointed out how the bodies of these two were tossed into a ravine, into the waters of the River Antaccacca. An older member of the community, who preferred to remain anonymous, corroborated this account, adding that the soldiers acted alongside with members of the ronderos from Mollebamba, 24 hours’ walk away.

Graves 3 and 4 were discovered in the same place. Here they exhumed the remains of two women, a man, and parts of an adult body of indeterminate sex. The incisions into the vertebrae confirmed that they were killed by having their throats cut. The following day, Grave 1 was uncovered. Beneath two metres of earth were the bones of six children and four women. A rifle bullet was found between the dismembered feet of one of the victims. The last body to be raised was that of a child of less than 1 metre in height, with a small white hat and a small bag of red wool matching the jumper of the same colour.

As the shadows of the mountains covered our camp, the official from the public prosecutor’s office said she believed that the testimony of Eugenia Quispe could lead the team to a possible fifth grave. Dannal Aramburú, the archaeologist, descended 50 metres towards the river bank, clutching onto a rope and initiating a more methodical search. Over 29 years the vegetation and landslides have changed the appearance of the landscape. He observes the rubble that covers the surface, the deterioration to the walls of the cliff, and discards possible places in the soil. Two members of the community then follow his orders: they lift up large stones and make holes with their picks in particular places.

Within a few moments, their tools uncover a scrap of clothing. The discovery confirms the account given by Eugenia: the remains of a young woman and of a girl of between two or three are excavated, alongside the bones of an adolescent. Once again, the vertebrae of the neck are incised by the cuts made by some sharp metallic object.

At nightfall we all returned to Huallhua, the human remains borne by the mules. The moon illuminated the outline of the mountains, so too our path back. They will return. The EFE team have undertaken similar missions in the areas of Cclastopata, Yaconhuaicco, Huarihuaico, Chaquiccmayo, and in the cemetery in Huallhua. The graves exhumed numbered 19, where 56 victims were found: 26 children, 18 women, six men and six persons of indeterminate sex.

“To identify the people directly responsible is very difficult. Not all incidents had witnesses, and innocence should be presumed unless proven otherwise. The blame for these executions, however, falls on the military authorities that gave orders for these executions to take place, and their names appear clearly in the army records,” asserts the prosecutor Gloria Pareja.

Endnote

Comparing the censuses of 1981 and 1993 for the district of Chungui, the total population fell by 47.5% (from 8,257 inhabitants to 4,338), according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC pointed to 300 graves in the district. It also described the violence there as the most “devastating” anywhere in the country. The economic situation is still as precarious as it was during the time of violence; 78% of the population is classified as ‘poor’ and 51% ‘extremely poor’ according to figures from the social inclusion ministry. The EFE planned to exhume a total of 48 graves in November and December, unearthing at least 202 persons killed between 1984 and 1989. Laboratory analysis confirmed that the killings at Suyrurupampa were carried out by military firearms.

View photos here. Read the second part of this report.

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