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Unearthing a Massacre in Peru

Silent clues to a violent past are buried among the scores of mass graves that dot Chungui district in the mountainous Ayacucho region of Peru. There, above layers of earth that mark geological time, lie relatively new remnants attesting to the massacres carried out by both the Shining Path guerrillas and the military and police forces that hunted them.

A soggy, wrinkled skirt. A skull. Fragments of a spinal column. All that remains of the many men, women and children caught in the crossfire of a war they never wanted. When these remains are lifted from their unmarked graves, they bring with them the chance to be identified, to give their survivors an idea of what happened. To give them something they can bury, and mourn.

Max Cabello Orcasitas, a Peruvian photojournalist, had been intrigued by the exhumations taking place in the region, which was among the hardest-hit by the political violence 30 years ago. He had read about it in a report by the country’s truth commission that offered an accounting of the crimes and killings that were carried out during these dirty wars.

Members of the self-defense committee pose at the end of the carnival in Chungui in 2010.CreditMax Cabello Orcasitas

“It struck me as a little-known tragedy,” Mr. Cabello Orcasitas said. “It was like that place in Yugoslavia where there were massacres, Srebrenica. This was like a Peruvian Srebrenica.”

There were few exhumations going on when he traveled to the region in 2009, but that worked in his favor, since he wanted to get to know the area’s residents before broaching uncomfortable topics. So he spent his time photographing daily life.

“It was important to start that way,” he said. “I had seen previous reports that concentrated just on the exhumations. I wanted to show the people of Chungui as they lived, including their festivals, celebrations and religious ceremonies, because that shows a type of recovery after the trauma. I didn’t want to just go in and say ‘Tell me about your tragedies.’”

But it can also show what has not changed, especially in the remote hamlet of Oronquoy, in an area nicknamed the Dog’s Ear, where the military had dragooned some residents into “self-defense” groups that carried out extrajudicial killings.

Alberto Sulca excavates an area where he presumes his relatives are buried. Oronqoy, Peru, 2013.Credit Max Cabello Orcasitas

There are lingering resentments over these violent acts, especially since many of the people responsible for the massacres have never been tried, or are in the early stages.

“There are sectors of the Army that have tried not to deal with this,” he said. “It’s a difficult topic. And I imagine the police and military don’t want to talk about what happened. There is a political strategy to let time pass.”

But time has stood still in Oronquoy, which can be reached only after driving and hiking for hours.

“Some people said the exhumations opened old wounds,” he said. “But others thought the tragedy could shed light on how abandoned the area had been. Not only had there been massacres, but they continue living without access to roads or hospitals.”

If anything, Mr. Cabello Orcasitas said, the impoverished residents of this area are making dual demands.

“They want not only justice but economic development,” he said. “These are areas that were and continue to be very poor, with 80 percent of the population living in extreme poverty. They are demanding from the state attention and development.”


(c) 2017 The New York Times

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