Currently in Ayacucho, a group of human rights organizations has organized a mobile exhibit of bits and piece of clothing the forensic anthropologists exhumed from some of the mass graves that are scattered across the highlands.=. Here is a piece I wrote for the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team, and I found myself re-reading it today.
During the presentation of the Peruvian TRC’s Final Report, Dr. Salomón Lerner posed a rhetorical question: “In effect, we Peruvians used to say, in our worst estimates, that the violence had left 35,000 dead. What does it say about our political community now that we know another 35,000 of our brothers and sisters were missing and we never even noticed they were gone?” I say “rhetorical” because the answer lies in the demographics of those who died: they were overwhelmingly Quechua-speaking peasants, people who — in the national imaginary — had counted for little during their lives and went largely unaccounted for in their deaths.
But only in the national imaginary. Of course their loved ones never forgot them and continue to remember them now as they touch their clothes, their bones — when they see a child’s shoe, so small yet capable of containing so much sorrow. Laid out on the blue plastic tarps is the material evidence of their dead loved ones. Yes, they may have been absent in the national history of the conflict, but they will always be present in the memories of those who loved them.
When the forensic anthropologists exhume the mass graves in Putis, they are also exhuming the Peruvian State. In recovering these remains, there exists the possibility of recovering the Peruvian state following many years of indifference to the most marginalized people in this country. The possibility exists if the state finally accepts that the armed forces com- mitted much more than “excesses and errors”: a tiny shoe accuses them.
As the mass graves that lay scattered throughout Ayacucho are opened, the state should open its own investigation into the military officials responsible for these crimes: doing so would be an important step in the long process of democratizing the Peruvian democracy. It would also be a response to the many campesinos who are still waiting for “a bit of justice.” During the TRC’s Public Audience in Huanta, Abraham Fernandez from the community of Chaka finished his testimony with these words: “Perhaps in a generation our children will be Peruvians. Once again I remember those Sunday mornings and the flag, and hope the wait will not be so long.