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Peru: Testimony from the bones

Just a few months after the fall of the Fujimori government, the discovery of a mass grave in the highland department of Huancavelica made the national news. Within weeks, reports of others surfaced in various parts of the country. In many cases, local people had known of the graves for years, but had been afraid to speak.

“According to the Ombudsman’s Office, more than 150 common graves have been found, but we know very little about who is in those graves, how they were produced or who produced them,” said José Pablo Baraybar, who heads the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team.

Like most of his colleagues, Baraybar got his forensic training in other parts of the world, excavating graves in Haiti, the Congo, Guatemala, Rwanda and Kosovo, where he has been an expert witness in war crimes cases. Now he has returned to tease secrets from the bones of victims in his native country.

“You have to know how to talk to death, so it will tell you something,” Baraybar said. The team painstakingly gathers details from family members that could help identify the remains, as well as information about possible perpetrators and events surrounding the victims’ deaths.

After several graves were dug up haphazardly by local authorities and residents, destroying valuable evidence, the archeologists gave prosecutors crash courses in handling such cases.

Although the Truth Commission will only have the time -- and funds -- to excavate about 20 graves, Baraybar said that the goal is to identify the remains, return them to the families and bring the perpetrators to justice, “to say to them, ‘I’m going to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that you did this, and these people whom you have silenced -- I’m going to make them speak.’ ”

In the Truth Commission hearings, the testimony of the living blended with the memory of the dead.

-- Barbara J. Fraser

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002