Isaias Rojas-Perez, recent graduate of John Hopkins University and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University in Newark came to Columbia University on April 14 as our third speaker in the Ontologies of Exhumation lecture series. His lecture, titled “Inhabiting Unfinished Pasts: Law, Transitional Justice, and Mourning in Post War Peru,” considered how survivors and relatives of victims of state terror engage in state-sponsored legal projects aiming to put an end to legacies of violence, impunity, and forgetfulness in cases of gross human rights violations that took place during the counterinsurgency campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s.
In August of 2003, after two years of work, the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) submitted its final report to then President Alejandro Toledo. The Peruvian TRC concluded that over 69,000 people died in twenty years of internal war between the Peruvian security forces and the guerrilla groups Shining Path and MRTA. Rojas-Perez described the experience of violence and terror in the Peruvian Andes as “an attack against cultural practices and what it means to be human beings.”
In his talk, Rojas-Perez focused specifically on how mothers of the desaparecidos [missing persons] engage the forensic excavation of clandestine mass graves in Los Cabitos, a military base in Ayacucho, Peru that served as a headquarters of the state sponsored counterinsurgency campaign. According to testimonial evidence, Los Cabitos was a major center of torture and extrajudicial execution of suspects of terrorism. The forensic excavation provided hard evidence to confirm those allegations and questioned longstanding official denial of the detention, disappearance and extrajudicial execution of accused terrorists at the site. After almost five years of work, the team of forensic archaeologists of the Peruvian Legal Medicine Institute exhumed around 100 complete bodies—including a number of children. The remains contained evidence of torture, blindfolding, and the binding of hands. There is also evidence supporting that the victims were forced to dig their own graves. In order to mask these abuses and thwart potential future forensic work, the perpetrators sprinkled the bodies with lime salt to expedite the decomposition of the flesh. There was also evidence of the existence of furnaces in which the military allegedly burned the bodies of their victims, using Nazi-like technologies of disposal of bodies. However, the forensic work was less successful in identifying and individualizing the victims. Thus, the bodies could not be returned to their relatives for proper burial.
The relatives of desaparecidos attending the exhumations were witnesses to these “landscapes of devastation” In his talk, Rojas-Perez discussed how the relatives of the desaparecidos appropriated the outcomes of the excavations to reclaim the past and assert truth against official denial. For seeking their missing sons, these mothers were defamed- labeled as drunks, madwomen, even terrorists themselves. The truth uncovered during the forensic excavations confirmed their allegations and allowed them to indict official denial.
However, because the bodies of the desaparecidos could not be individually identified, their families were never given the opportunity to mourn the remains, making complete closure impossible. Rojas-Perez spoke of how with no identifiable bodies to mourn, uncertainty continues. These wandering souls form communities of the dead- maintaining agency even without a physical body- haunting the living through dreams, offering some reassurance, some peace, some articulation that they once lived. The wandering of the ghosts mirrors the wandering of their living relatives- displaced, searching for a body.
The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Committee has made great strides in aiding the prosecution of the perpetrators of state violence and the breaking of public silence about the fate of the disappeared, but the past is still “unfinished”- and the wandering living and dead will continue to inhabit Peru. Current President Garcia, who himself is still under investigation for human rights abuses committed during his first tenure (1985-1990), is still in power and has attempted to grant immunity to perpetrators of gross human rights violations. However, stories such as those of the desaparecidos make such attempts not only illegal, but immoral. Thus, it can be said that that the violence of the past is a matter of an ongoing struggle, rather than reconciliation.