War orphans search for their relatives in unearthed graves

18 DECEMBER 2013

Translated from a report for La República by Miguel Mejía Castro. To read a translation of the first part of his report, click here.

According to the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, between 1983 and 1984, the most violent years in Chungui district, 1384 civilians were killed by Shining Path militants, community self-defence groups and security forces. The recent exhumation of the remains of 56 people by a forensic team involved men and women who, as children, witnessed the violent killing of their relatives.

The persistent blows that Félix Pacheco Casafranca makes in the mountainside are barely audible. The echo of his metal shovel is lost in the strong wind that is blowing down the canyon of the Apurímac River. When the specialist forensic team arrived in the village of Huallhua in mid-November, Félix Pacheco had already spent 48 hours searching among the rocks for the remains of his father, murdered in 1984.

“My parents had gone out to fetch water from the mountain when we heard gunshots, and just after nightfall my mother came back. She told me that the self-defence groups (ronderos) and soldiers from the Mollebamba military base had killed my father,” says Félix, resting the steel tip of his shovel on his shoulder. Félix recalls that the body of his father was buried at that time by his uncle in the Artesonpata gorge, but now, after 29 years, he can’t find the remains. There is no official record of this grave in the forensic team’s plan.

Displaced populations

Violence gripped Chungui’s communities and hamlets from 1983, when Sendero Luminoso set up its base to attack the military and police there, according to the anthropologist Edilberto Jiménez, a researcher for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Many of the local people were forced by Sendero to leave their villages and live in the mountains, in groups of 30, including children, women, elderly and young people. The young were the pioneers, but from the age of 12 they went to form militias. They were the main fighting force, but they didn’t have weapons like the soldiers, and so there weren’t direct conflicts.”

The wind blows gently in Pinto, another mountainous area of Chungui. There for the last three days Robin Quispe Días, aged 52, has been looking for the grave of his father, Sebastián Quispe, killed in 1987.

Alex Curi, a forensic archaeologist, scrapes the ground, and Robin’s face shows a painful expression. They are not only opening up the earth, but also a wound that he bears. He recognises a cross that used to shine on his father’s chest and that is now stuck to the shirt covering the ribs of the skeleton.

“A month after the Senderistas forced us to move to the mountains, the soldiers arrived. We fled to wherever we could, but a grenade that they threw exploded and killed my father; only my wife, my daughter and I managed to escape,” remembers Robin. Climbing the hills to avoid being killed, his wife Mercedes Castro lost the baby she was expecting.

Now, Mercedes, aged 51, pulls out of her cloak six tamales, a block of cheese and a big bag of corn, and shares them with the others while the exhumation of her father-in-law continues.

With baited breath, the archaeologist places the thorax and the pelvis of the body in one box, and the skull and extremities in another. Robin puts the first in his cloak and Mercedes wraps the second in hers. Both climb up to the village of Huallhua, carrying the remains on their backs.

Valentín Casa Quispe experienced another violent episode in Chungui in 1986. He was a boy of 9 when he found the motionless bodies of his mother, sister and cousin in a place called Suyrurupampa. Two weeks later he would witness the killing of his father.

“After burying my mother, we fled with my father into the mountains where we came across the ronderos. I ran holding my father’s hand but they grabbed him. I managed to jump away and, hidden among the grass, I saw my father kneeling, hands tied, and a rondero cut off his nose and then his cut his neck with a machete blow,” says Valentín.

When the killers left, little Valentín ran and hugged his father, who was still alive. “’Daddy, daddy,’ I shouted, crying, and when his eyes went blank everything went silent,” he remembers.

The villagers of Huallhua buried Porfirio Casa Berrocal in a place called Chaquiccmayo. The forensic team exhumed the bones of Valentín’s mother two weeks earlier and will recover his father’s remains this month.

The violence left dozens of orphans in Chungui who carried on fleeing like Félix, Robin and Valentín. Others like Eugenia Quispe Alarcón were given to members of the Mollebamba community.

Eugenia was seven when her sisters were killed in the hamlet of Chaupimayo and her father executed in the Mollebamba military base, in 1984. After this misfortune, the child spent two years in the mountains eating boiled grasses and raw corn. “I was following the men and women who were there with their children. When the soldiers captured me and took me to Mollebamba I’d just turned nine.”

The soldiers handed her over to the peasant Lorenza Hurtado Alarcón, who forced her to look after her livestock and work in her house. “She treated me badly, screaming at me and always telling the community she’d picked up a little terrorist.” A year later, her uncle Antonio Quispe Nieve rescued her and took her to Andahuaylas.

Causes of the violence

Cambridge University anthropologist Nathalie Koc-Menard, who has studied the region in depth, believes that few people understand what happened in Chungui in the 1980s.

“At the start, the Sendero project got a foothold in various areas, because the agrarian reform created inequalities here. Some people started to acquire more livestock and more power in the community, others lost out. Jealousies and internal fighting broke out,” she says.

Fights also emerged between communities, over boundaries and land, and came to the forth when the armed forces decided to put a stop to the Sendero presence.

“The ronderos say: they’ll kill me if I don’t follow the army major’s orders. And military policy was: you’re either with us or against us. Now, soldiers and ronderos blame each other. It wasn’t a war between two countries, it was a war that went beyond everything we might expect from international conventions.”
Time has passed since then but the life of Chungui’s population remains as precarious as when Sendero appeared. More than 50 per cent of the people live in extreme poverty. There are no paved roads, only some communities are lucky enough to have a teacher or high school, and there is no electric light or phone signal. The state and human rights NGOs have forgotten this damaged region. For now, the people only think of healing their wounds, of burying their murdered relatives with dignity.

Key facts

In the forensic team’s studies of Chungui, produced between November 2005 and June 2013, the remains of 166 people were found, of which 102 were identified and 100 returned to their families.

In mid-2014, the forensic team will deliver the remains to their relatives in the capital of Chungui district. The last exhumations took place between 5 and 20 November, of 19 graves containing 56 skeletons, most of them women with children.

In April 2011, the NGO Comisión de Derechos Humanos called for an investigation into the former army major Pedro Baca Doig, who was head of the military in Chungui in the 1980s. In early 2013 the public prosecutor called him to give evidence on the massacre in the district. 

View photos of the exhumations.

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