Valentin Casa can’t shake the recurring nightmares. And this day certainly isn’t helping.
The 36-year-old farmer looks on as forensic investigators unearth a pair of finger bones and two copper rings from a mass grave in the village of Huallhua on the eastern steppes of Peru’s Andes. The grave contains the long-buried remains of two women and 13 children, and Casa believes the bones and rings belonged to his mother.
As a boy 27 years ago, Casa watched from behind trees as soldiers and their paramilitary allies dismembered and killed his mother and other women and children left behind by fleeing Shining Path rebels. Civilians suspected of backing the rebels were hunted down and killed. Two weeks later, troops and their civilian confederates caught and killed men from Casa’s village, including his father, whose throat they slit.
"I drank my own urine to survive," Casa remembers after his mother was killed and he fled into the forest. In his recurring nightmare, Casa is chased by someone, he knows not who. He always awakens with a start, covered in sweat.
Teresa Vilchez, 52, says she still suffers occasional vaginal bleeding from a gang rape by soldiers in 1984 at the nearby Mollebamba barracks. Rebels killed her husband, she says, and soldiers killed her mother, who she says was disfigured in the customary way after being raped: Her breasts were cut off.
No one has been arrested or prosecuted to date for the crimes in Chungui — not a single soldier, rebel or civilian. The survivors are mostly on their own. Villagers say no one has received any mental health counseling. Vilchez has never seen a gynecologist.
Three decades later, this isolated corner of Peru is witnessing the biggest exhumation to date of victims of the nation’s 1980-2000 internal conflict. The worst of its carnage occurred on these hills between the Andes ridge and Amazon jungle.
"Everybody here is traumatized," Casa says as he watches the work underway. "Whoever says he isn’t is lying."
The killing fields are an 18-hour walk from the nearest road in a region known as “Oreja de Perro,” or Dog’s Ear. It is a place where health care, schools, police and other state institutions barely exist. There are no roads, electricity or phones. The hills are still patrolled by Shining Path rebels, and drug traffickers flaunt the state’s absence. Today’s Shining Path only numbers in the hundreds, taxes the cocaine trade and still has a reputation for cultivating local farmers.
Authorities in distant Lima have been painfully slow to dispatch teams to dig up the dead from a brutal conflict that, according to a 2003 truth commission report, claimed an estimated 70,000 lives. Just over half were slain by Maoist-inspired rebels, over a third by security forces, the commission found. In November, forensic anthropologists began their work in the Chungui district and expect to remove 202 bodies in all — mostly women and children. At least 1,384 people were killed in Chungui, which is slightly larger than Hong Kong geographically but has only 6,000 inhabitants. — Read More
Photos by Rodrigo Abd/AP
A flower vendor reads a tabloid as he waits for customers near the Nueva Esperanza cemetery in Lima, Peru on Nov. 1, 2013. The holiday known in Spanish as Dia de los Muertos, is especially popular in Mexico, but is also observed in other countries around the region, including Peru, Bolivia and Guatemala.
[Credit : Rodrigo Abd/AP]
For almost a quarter century, they have scoured the mountains of Peru’s poorest region in search of the son hauled away by soldiers in the middle of the night. During their futile search, the couple found 70 clandestine burial sites and unearthed three dozen bodies.
After Javier was taken along with two school chums, they wrote the local military commander, who denied knowing anything. They wrote the Roman Catholic Church, the Congress and three successive presidents. But none answered Alejandro Crispin and his wife, Alicia.
"How is it possible that no one is in jail for ‘disappearing’ one’s child?" asked Crispin, who at 69 is equal parts exhausted, bewildered and indignant. "How is it possible that the killers of innocents remain free?"
The couple’s odyssey lays bare Peru’s failure to address the unhealed wounds of thousands of families, most of them poor, Quechua-speaking peasants, who were the principal victims of the country’s 1980-2000 conflict between Maoist Shining Path guerrillas and the government.
About 70,000 people died, just over half slain by rebels and over a third by security forces, according to estimates by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of respected academics.
But 10 years after the commission issued its recommendations, few have been heeded: No state agency exists dedicated to finding and cataloging the bodies of the estimated 15,000 people forcibly disappeared in the conflict. Researchers blame most of the disappearances on security forces.
Few human rights abusers have been prosecuted. And fewer than two in five of the 78,000 relatives of people killed who applied for reparations received them, getting less than $4,000 each.
"As a nation, (Peru) has failed miserably to exhibit even the most basic empathy for those fellow citizens," said Eduardo Gonzalez, director of the Truth and Memory program at the International Center for Transitional Justice, a New York-based nonprofit that helps war-wracked countries recover.
Argentina and Chile have advanced far further in punishing perpetrators of war crimes, and even Colombia, which is still at war, has done more to provide reparations, he said.
Then-President Alejandro Toledo apologized to all victims of political violence when the commission released its report in 2003. But no other public or social institution has acknowledged errors, said the man who led the commission, former Catholic University president Salomon Lerner.
"It is a task still to be done," he told The Associated Press.
On the anniversary of the report’s release, Aug. 28, hundreds marched in Lima in commemoration of the conflict’s victims. Absent and silent were the country’s political and military leaders.
To date, the bodies of 2,478 of the disappeared have been recovered.
Javier Crispin’s is not among them.
He was 18 when soldiers stormed into the house in Huancavelica where he and two friends were working on a class report and hauled them away — presumably suspecting they were rebels, his father said. The city lies in Peru’s poorest state and borders Ayacucho, where the insurgency was born and where more than 40 percent of deaths and disappearances occurred.
Several dozen Huancavelica residents said soldiers would stop youths on the street, order them to empty their backpacks to look for weapons — and take some away.
"The soldiers would pass through the streets shouting, ‘Damn you, you sons of bitches, we can do whatever we want with you,’" said Giovana Cueva, whose brother Alfredo Ayuque was seized with Javier.
Unlike Guatemala, which received U.N. assistance to cope with its violent recent past, Peru has done little to catalog abuses and identify the dead.
Investigators from the prosecutor’s office, aided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, were often spurred into action by Alejandro Crispin’s findings.
"All these years I’ve had to dip into my own pocket to pay for information so I could find the graves, because no one helps," said the retired topographer, who spent all the $10,000 he had saved for the brick home he never built.
The truth commission was able to document only 24,692 deaths — 44 percent by state security agents and 37 percent by the Shining Path, with the other killers undetermined. A relatively low percentage of overall deaths in the conflict occurred in actual combat, leading to complaints by rights activists of meager prosecutions of war criminals.
Only 68 state security agents have been convicted of war crimes, while 134 have been acquitted, mostly soldiers, said Jo-Marie Burt, a George Mason University political scientist who studies the conflict.
Judges have not accepted that “in Peru there were systematic violations of human rights,” she said. “Instead, in recent years they argue that there were only ‘excesses,’ and with those arguments they have absolved those who gave the orders.”
Huancavelica’s human rights prosecutor, Juan Borja, said Defense Ministry officials have blocked all attempts to locate and prosecute those responsible for Javier Crispin’s disappearance.
"I’ve made 80 inquiries … for this and other cases and their answer is that they don’t have the information," Borja said as he and a forensic archaeologist dug with pickaxes and shovels at a clandestine gravesite outside Huancavelica to which Alejandro Crispin led them.
The Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Shining Path instigated the bloodletting and its leaders and more than 600 other insurgents were convicted of terrorism and jailed, but many mid-level rebel commanders guilty of war crimes evaded justice.
People such as Nicanor Torres have tried, mostly in vain, to set that straight.
The 52-year-old Lima tailor is obsessed with avenging the 1984 killings of his parents and two brothers by rebels in a remote part of Ayacucho state.
His sister Alejandrina, who was 4 at the time, hid under a neighbor’s skirts as rebels cut her parents’ throats in their home in the hamlet of Chaca, and he traveled from Lima to rescue her.
Torres said he knows who had his relatives killed: A rebel commander who robbed them of 1,000 sheep, a hundred head of cattle and 53 horses.
Torres said he tracked the man down and twice visited his house in Ayacucho’s capital, Huamanga, intent on killing him. The first time, a woman answered the door. The second time, a girl. Both said the former Shining Path cadre wasn’t home.
Nicanor and Alejandrina Torres returned to Chaca in June for the formal burial of their parents, whose remains had been exhumed a year earlier.
Villagers wept quietly as they carried 21 coffins from the town square, through a eucalyptus grove beside a river where frogs croaked, to its cemetery.
Alejandrina Torres said she was so shocked she didn’t cry.
Only when she returned to Lima, in the solitude of her room, did the tears come: “I couldn’t sleep for two days.”
Photos by Rodrigo Abd/AP
For roughly four months a year, the sun abandons Peru’s seaside desert capital, suffocating it under a ponderous gray cloudbank and fog that coats the city with nighttime drizzles.
The cold Humboldt current that runs north from Antarctica along the coast is the culprit, colliding with the warmer tropical atmosphere to create the blinding mists called “garua” in coastal Chile and Peru. Limenos don scarfs and jackets and complain of slipping into a gloom of seasonal depression.
The 19th-century writer and seafarer Herman Melville called Lima “the strangest and saddest city thou can’st see.” Other writers have likened its leaden winter sky to “the belly of a burro.”
This year, Lima has had a particularly bad bout of winter, its coldest, dampest in 30 years, according to the state meteorological agency, with temperatures dropping to a sodden 12 degrees centigrade (about 54 degrees Fahrenheit)
Of course no one suffers Lima’s winters like the poor huddled in its hilly, fog-draped peripheries. In one cardboard-and-wood shack, 41-year-old Digna Salvador tells a visiting journalist that it takes her clothing 12 days to dry on the line. Four of her nine children are sick with bronchitis.
"But everything is sad here," she says. "In winter, it’s as if we’re living enclosed in a cloud."
Photos by Rodrigo Abd/AP
"Life for the indigenous Ixil Mayans in the mountains west of Guatemala City is worn and static like an old photograph.
Seventeen years after the end of a civil war that saw hundreds of their villages razed and thousands of their loved ones killed, the Ixil people still live in mud-and-wood houses in the most rugged and isolated parts of northwestern Guatemala. Most of them have no drinking water, paved roads or basic services such as health and education.
Largely ignored by authorities for centuries, the Ixil came under the spotlight after a Guatemalan court found former dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide on May 10 for the scorched-earth policies used against the Ixil during his 17 months in power in the 1980s.
The conviction was annulled 10 days later following a trial that did nothing to change their lives of the Ixil people.
Byron Garcia, a social anthropologist who has worked in the area for a decade, said Ixil Mayans live in the same poverty as always.
"People have been relegated to less productive places, places where you can’t grow food, to the mountains made of stone," Garcia said. "The young people who can, sow plots of land. And when they can’t, they migrate."
Feliciana Cobo was 8 when soldiers attacked her village. She and her family separated and ran into the mountains, where they hid for several days with nothing to eat.
Cobo said her mother was killed when the army bombed the village and surrounding area, and her grandmother died later after growing sick from the cold and bad living conditions. Her family eventually lost their land and their poverty deepened.
Now a single mother of three children, the 40-year-old Cobo borrows electricity from a neighbor and supports her kids by washing the clothes of neighbors and weaving garments to sell.
"I grew up during the civil war and I don’t know how to read or write. I didn’t go to school," Cobo said. "All I know is to weave."
Forensic experts are now exhuming bodies from the cemeteries that the Ixil people created to bury loved ones who died of starvation, hypothermia and disease — as well as munitions — while they hid from the soldiers in the mountains.
"I helped exhume my mother," Cobo said. "I don’t know if it was the smoke or the impact of the bombs planes were dropping on us but we all left running and when we got back together, my mother had already died."
Garcia, who now lives in the Guatemalan capital, said that victims feel a need to tell their stories, to be heard, to be indemnified, to find the bodies of their loved ones and be able to bury them.
Cobo said she doubts justice will be done, but is glad some fellow Ixil Mayans could travel to Guatemala City to tell their stories at the trial.
"We’re not inventing the dead," she said."
(Photos taken May 22-24, 2013 ©Rodrigo Abd/AP)
Holy Week Celebrations in Peru // March 28, 2013
1. An indigenous woman walks at Canaan fair, which is part of Holy Week events in Ayacucho.
2. A dog rides in a carousel during the Canaan fair in Ayacucho.
3. A boy rests during the Canaan fair in Ayacucho.
[Credit : Rodrigo Abd/AP]