Largest exhumation over Peru’s Shining Path conflict underway

By Franklin Briceno, AP

CHUNGUI, Peru–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.

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.”

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. Human rights activists blame politics, including resistance from the military, for the delay in exhuming the bodies. Fifty criminal investigations were only launched into the killings in 2011, said the prosecutor in charge, Gloria Pareja.

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.

People there are constantly uncovering bones but very few graves have been exhumed by professionals.

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.

At the edge of a shallow pit, Casa provides security for the forensic team while armed with a worn Mossberg 500 shotgun. He watches the technicians uncover a skull here, a swath of clothing there and finds himself overwhelmed by memories.

“I drank my own urine to survive,” Casa remembers after his mother was killed and he fled into the forest.

The exhumers gather the diminutive bones of children, 26 found so far in the district, in boxes made to hold sweet bread.