I recently began my summer fieldwork in Lima, Peru, where I visited the photo exhibit Yuyanapaq, or “To Remember” in Quechua. Created by Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2003, the exhibit is a compilation of photographs that document the impact of political violence on the Peruvian population in the 1980s and 1990s. It groups violent events geographically and categorically, portraying the aftermath of bombings, murders, and attacks by the Peruvian military, the Maoist group the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), and the other communist armed group the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Yuyanapaq is impressive not only in that it does not shy away from exposing the realities of violence, but in that attracts a wide range of Peruvian visitors who, upon being reminded of the country’s violent period, will hopefully work to prevent it from recurring.
The photos evoke Peru’s violent past, even showing physical harm done to the war’s victims. Multiple images show dead and mutilated bodies. They capture inadvertent looks of shock and awe from survivors and first responders, and the utter anguish of family members as they look over the corpses of their loved ones. The only thing that I can think to compare the exhibit to in the United States is a miniature version of the Holocaust Museum. Yet whereas in the Holocaust it was easy to place the blame on the Nazis, and even on one clear, specific perpetrator, in Peru political violence and human rights abuses were committed by both the state military and leftist armed groups such as the Shining Path. How might the moral ambiguity that this type of conflict generates help us better understand the nature of violence? Were all those who committed violent acts in the context of Peru’s war “bad people” at heart, no matter what side they were on? If not, then what pushes otherwise decent people to commit such horrific acts?
The most harrowing photo (at least for me, someone who has seen and worked with many dead bodies) was that of a young father being ripped away from his eight or nine year-old daughter. They are grabbing each others’ wrists, as police forces separate them forcibly. According to the accompanying text, the father was subsequently “disappeared,” or taken away and never heard from again. The disappeared in Latin America – los desaparecidos – are often presumed to be dead with the passing of time. But at what point do families stop wondering about the fate of their disappeared relatives? After one month? One year? One decade?
For many families the search goes on indefinitely, and even when the victim is presumed dead, the uncertainty of such a horrendous situation is what drives them to keep looking, even if in the grave. Forensic investigations, the primary focus of my research here in Peru, intend to find and identify the bodies of those killed in war so that families may find some sort of closure in the knowledge of what happened to their loved ones. Upon reburial, the spirits of the people violently killed can cease to wander the earth in a state of unease – a common belief especially among indigenous Quechua speakers – and begin to rest in peace.
The day after visiting Yuyanapaq, I visited with the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF) in Lima. The organization works with communities affected by violence to find and identify the bodies of the war’s dead, particularly in cases of human rights abuse. They work primarily in the region of Ayacucho, which – with their kind guidance – is where I will spend most of August. Stay tuned for future blog posts from the mountains of Ayacucho!
Posted by Jennifer Trowbridge – PhD Student in Anthropology at NYU