On Tuesday 22 June 2004, the families of five men who disappeared in 1983 were finally able to bury the remains of their loved ones. The remains of Virginio Moreno Machaca, Cirilo Galindo Huamaní, Francisco Huamaní Galindo, Moisés Huamaní Calloccunto y Martín Vilca Tomaylla were identified after the two mass graves they shared with seven as yet officially unidentified bodies were exhumed in April 2004. According to an eyewitness, on the night of 6 July 1983, these people and 11 others, were taken from where they were detained in Totos military base to Sancaypata, and made to dig a deep hole. All of them were shot dead and buried in the two graves they had dug themselves, apart from one witness who managed to escape.

The delegates of the recent Peru Support Group delegation to Peru, Lord Alderdice and John Battle, MP for Leeds West, and co-ordinator Hannah Morley, were in the city of Ayacucho in Peru to attend a public ceremony on behalf of the victims.

Outside the Legal Medical Centre in Ayacucho five open coffins displayed the skeletons of the people being returned to their families. Clothing, preserved by the cold of the Andes, that had been exhumed with the bones, was laid out on a white board. The families of the dead, who had travelled many hours to get to the city, had been waiting for three hours in the sun due to administrative delays.

It was hard to watch. Family members of the victims were formally handed the clothing of their father, brother, husband or son by Cristina Ozanoa, the prosecutor in charge of the newly formed human rights regional prosecutor’s office in Ayacucho. They signed and stamped an official document and placed the package of clothes into the coffin.

With the formal handover completed, seven coffins were carried through the town in a procession down to the main square and into the courtyard of the town hall: the five coffins of those who had been identified; one coffin for the people who died with them, but who have not yet been identified; and a seventh which represented the rest of the 69,000 people who died as a result of the violence in Peru 1980-2000.

A civic reception included short speeches by the mayor of Ayacucho, representatives of the victims’ families, and human rights NGOs, as well as a short bible reading and prayer. Among other messages of international support, Lord Alderdice and John Battle were asked to say a few words, which were translated into Quechua.

“We know that the broken heart of a Quechua person feels the same as the broken heart of someone from Northern Ireland. We are here not only in solidarity but also to learn about the dignity with which you are dealing with the past,” said Lord Alderdice. “This is not just about the past, but also about making the future better. So on behalf of my brothers and sisters and yours in Northern Ireland, I wish you well for the future.”

John Battle added: “I see some of the banners here today with slogans like ‘we will sow the seeds of love, justice and equality’ and I feel positive for the future of Peru. I was surprised at the signs of exclusion and racism that I have seen already on this trip. This is an issue in many parts of the world, including on my street in North England where we have 13 different nationalities living in the same community. I hope we can all work together to help Peru move forward to a future where love, justice and equality is a reality.”

The formal handing over of the remains and the civic ceremony were important acts, aimed at recognising the importance of the victims as well as the suffering of their loved ones. But this was just the third ceremony of this type since the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2001. Despite this there was no national media coverage of the event, and I couldn’t help wondering if there would have been a civic ceremony at all if it had not been for the work of local human rights defence organisations.

These were bodies identified from one of the 4,000 registered burial sites in Peru, and the question remains as to how many other relatives will be given the opportunity to take the bodies of their loved ones to be buried in their own community. But having the closure of a coffin or of a grave is not the same as completing a process of grieving, or of demanding truth, justice and long-term reconciliation. As John Battle notes: “a public ceremony to return the remains, while at least acknowledging the facts of political disappearance and violent death, has to be accompanied by political, social and economic processes of accountability, responsibility and reparation, for there to be any sense of moving on from past events.”