Jessica Varat

Jessica Varat (Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team - EPAF): Jessica worked at the Latin America Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C, where she specialized on politics in Bolivia. During her time at the Center, she traveled to both Peru and Bolivia, and completed a semester-long introductory Quechua class. She also coordinated projects on citizen security and the geopolitics of energy. At the time of her fellowship, Jessica was a graduate student at the Fletcher School studying Conflict Resolution and International Negotiation. After her fellowship, Jessica wrote: “I think I now see myself as someone who is open to idealism and becoming truly passionate about an issue. I am also now less afraid of being in a new situation where I might experience hardship, and have learned that with good friends, like the ones I had at EPAF, hardship becomes much less hard. I am now committed to the study of transitional justice.”



Ghost stories

03 Jun

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that in an office tasked with exhuming mass graves and analyzing the remains of bodies, ghost stories would eventually surface. Indeed, on a tour of the office I was shown boxes full of personal articles from the bodies of the mass graves-items that have gone unclaimed by family members.   They are from the excavation and exhumation of a mass grave that EPAF worked on last year-one of the sites addressed in the trial of now convicted former President Alberto Fujimori.    I pass these boxes every day as I walk to the kitchen for coffee.  Since being here, I’ve heard stories ranging from keys that went missing and suddenly reappeared in plain sight to apparitions waking members of the team up in the middle of the night in Ayacucho, where some of the remains from Putis remains were stored.

Today is my third day at EPAF, and fourth day in Peru after arriving at the crowded Lima airport late last Saturday night.   And since that moment, the crowds haven’t stopped. From packed sidewalks to chaotic traffic, this city is in constant motion and I find myself having a little trouble keeping up.   The challenge is feeling as though everyone seems to know exactly where they are going, be it by bus or by taxi, except for me.  However, I have no doubt that this will soon change as I get used to the new world around me.  I’m living close to the EPAF office, which is very convenient, but a bit far from most of my friends in Miraflores, a wealthier section of the city.   However, as I hear the experiences of friends living in guarded UN complexes in other countries, I’m grateful for the opportunity to live outside of my comfort zone.

Apart from endowing me with an eerie feeling of both fear and excitement (read: ghost stories), my first few days at EPAF have provided me with the opportunity to learn more about the team and each of their backgrounds.  While most are trained in forensic anthropology and archaeology, there is also a strong undercurrent of dedication to human rights, especially with regards to the forcibly disappeared and their families.  In addition to being experts in exhumations and forensic analysis, they are now constantly traveling all over the country and abroad to hold workshops and trainings. These sessions are used to train public prosecutors in carrying out forensic investigations to ensure that evidence is handled correctly and that all possible information about the victim is collected.

I must admit that seeing the reality of forensic investigation up close has been somewhat jarring.   As human beings, we frequently desensitize ourselves to violence, compartmentalizing or ignoring what we see.   We create distance and more often than not, that distance is real, as most of us live full lives without feeling the direct impact of violence or violent acts.  I’m not condemning this, because I understand that it is how we cope. But what I hope to convey is that when you can see the angle at which a bullet has entered a skeleton, the story and the pain of that act of violence becomes all the more real.  I imagine that everyone in this field develops their own way of dealing with these revelations, but regardless, I have tremendous respect for their work after learning more about it these last few days.

On a different note,  Zack and I  were happily surprised to find out that we would be heading to Abancay, a town located a few hours outside of Cusco, next week.  We will get to observe one of the trainings, but also have the opportunity to interview families of victims. The plan is to be there for about a week, which is probably just enough time to get sick from the altitude, as I have the tendency to do.  However I am looking forward to beautiful mountain landscapes and to spending some time outside of Lima.

Posted By Jessica Varat

Posted Jun 3rd, 2009

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