"If I Don't Come Back, Look for me in Putis"

At the site of the mass grave in Putis, Peru. The site is believed to be one of nearly 3000. (Photo Source: Ash Kosiewicz)

By Larissa Hotra, IAR Staff Writer.

On November 13, in a crowded room at the Inter-cultural Center at Georgetown University, the audience was transported to Ayacucho, Peru, as it watched a documentary of the Equipo Peruano de Antropología Forense (Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team – EPAF) exhume the remains of disappeared persons from the Putis massacre of December 13, 1984.

Jose Pablo Baraybar, Executive Director of EPAF, along with Iain Guest, Director of the D.C.-based Advocacy Project (AP) and Ash Kosiewicz, 2008 summer AP Peace Fellow, presented a documentary called “If I Don’t Come Back, Look for Me in Putis” on EPAF’s work to search for, recover, and identify the remains of 123 individuals missing for over 24 years from the remote indigenous region of Ayacucho, Peru.

Iain Guest introduced the audience to the “largest mass grave in Peru,” emphasizing the striking experience of the exhumation for the EPAF employees and colleagues, and relatives of the victims. For over two weeks in May, the seventeen-member EPAF team worked tirelessly and meticulously in the freezing Peruvian highlands to exhume the bones and clothing of the 123 Quechua-speaking Peruvians at the Putis mass gravesite. According to Baraybar, this mass grave could be just one of nearly 3,000 in Peru.

Ash Kosiewicz blogs about the details of the Putis site after his summer experience working with the EPAF team. He wrote, “One of thirteen supposed mass graves…has buried only 123 of the 360 victims claimed to have been massacred in the area.” When asked by an audience member why the Peruvian military killed the indigenous men, women and children of Putis, Jose Pablo Baraybar’s face clouded over. “To steal the cattle,” he responded.

“[The massacre] was disgusting, because it’s a calculated killing, and those who engineer it, know it’s effective, and keep doing it.” The audience fell silent as Baraybar discussed the EPAF team’s close encounter with drug traffickers from the Maoist insurgent group, Shining Path near the Putis site. Protecting the team during the exhumation, ironically enough, was the Peruvian military—responsible for the 1984 Putis massacre. Baraybar broke the silence when he disclosed the rape of a surviving victim of the massacre by a military commander just two weeks after the exhumation.

The visit of Jose Pablo Baraybar to the United States and the recent and continuing exhumations of disappeared persons comes at a critical time in Peruvian judicial and social history. The work of EPAF, a civil society organization founded in 2001, has figured prominently in the current trials of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. In 2007, EPAF testified against Fujimori for the 1992 La Cantuta University massacre of nine students and one professor. After that testimony, which was one of the most important cases against Fujimori, the panel of judges publicly congratulated EPAF’s work saying, “For the first time, Peruvian history has been unburied.”

EPAF continues to track disappeared Peruvians as Fujimori and his administration return to face justice in the courts. Baraybar asserts that the Peruvian state, which is dealing with confronting its conflicted past while trying to look forward, must combine retributive and restorative justice. The Putis case represents the classic transitional justice debate about peace versus justice, as well as the historical argument embedded within this debate of retributive versus restorative justice.

“In Peru, they [the Quechua-speaking people of Ayacucho] were poor, anonymous…If it hadn’t been for EPAF’s efforts, the victims would stay anonymous,” said Greg Maggio, a Foreign Service Officer of the State Department who traveled to the exhumation site to monitor the use of the funds the State Department provided for EPAF’s work. In addition to exhumations, EPAF also challenges the findings of the 2003 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which the government created to document human rights violations and provide restorative justice to the innocent victims of the twenty-year political conflict.

For instance, EPAF reports over 15,000 disappeared by the Peruvian military, contrary to the 8,500 documented by the Commission. Those ‘disappeared’, a figure which is officially now greater than 14,000, were accused of ties to the Shining Path, regardless of the accuracy of these claims.

EPAF is working to access the far regions that weren’t reached by the TRC and in many cases, by any organization.

Over 69,000 people died in Peru’s dirty war, and EPAF is striving to improve communication between forensic anthropologists and judiciary agents in their joint work in the forensic investigation of human rights violations. As the Fujimori trials continue, and the number of disappeared continues to rise, the search for retributive and restorative justice will continue. When asked whether another massacre could happen again in the future, Baraybar responded sharply. “Things have not changed…people feel that all they get from the state is repression.”

“Putis is not one place. There are many Putis’ in Peru.”

A photo exhibit of clothing and personal effects from the grave by Peruvian photojournalist Domingo Giribaldi was originally exhibited in Ayacucho in August 2008 and accompanied the November 13 discussion.

To see more pictures of the exhumation and to learn more about EPAF’s work in Peru, see the multimedia blogs of Ash Kosiewicz, http://www.advocacynet.org/blogs/index.php?blog=113.

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