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.”

The few who have achieved justice

15 Jul

My workspace at EPAF is situated directly underneath a wide set of cabinets holding hundreds of fichas, or records.  Every morning when I arrive, I look up at them and read the names of the towns written on the folders. I frequently find myself gazing up at them during the day as well, contemplating their contents. The records form part of an important EPAF initiative called the “Memory Project,” and in the simplest of terms, that is what they are. Memories.  Memories gathered by members of the EPAF team when dispatched to various locations to collect “anti-mortem data” from the loved ones of the disappeared. There, they interview relatives of the disappeared to try and answer the question “What were they like when they were alive?”  This is not solely meant to be a symbolic act of recognition. Indeed, it serves an extremely practical purpose.  If EPAF can discern what clothes the disappeared person was wearing, whether or not they had any dental work, or any broken bones in their lifetime, there is a much better chance that they will be able to make a positive match after the remains of the body have been analyzed.

When I think of the records above me, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by what they mean.  In 2006-07, EPAF, along with other human rights organizations in Peru, calculated that there are close to 15, 000 disappeared persons in Peru.  Yet, it is not until one has the opportunity to meet the families of disappeared in person that one really understand what that number looks like from the other side–the side of the victims.  I recently had the chance to meet and listen to a few of the relatives speak at a ceremony commemorating the 17 years of fighting against impunity in the case of La Cantuta.  For those that don’t know, the Cantuta case refers to a massacre carried out by a Peruvian special intelligence unit (known as Grupo Colina) under the orders of former President Fujimori.  Seventeen years ago this Saturday, members of the Colina group kidnapped and assassinated a group of nine innocent students and one professor, all from the La Cantuta University on the outskirts of Lima.  Last year, the remains of the disappeared were exhumed, examined by EPAF, and properly reburied with the presence of the relatives.

Unlike many relatives of the disappeared in Peru, the relatives of the La Cantuta victims have achieved a great sense of justice.  This year, Fujimori was tried for the massacre, was found guilty, and was sentenced to 25 years in jail (the maximum sentence allotted within the Peruvian penal system).   Other members of the Colina group have also been brought to justice.  Yet this has not made the victims any less vocal about their experiences, nor have they backed away from the call for justice.  I was particularly struck listening to one man, representing the families of victims from another case, as he pointed to the family members of La Cantuta as a great hope for relatives of the missing all over the country.  I immediately thought of those whose records and memories continue to habit the shelves above my desk.

The general mood of the commemoration was a positive one, and for this reason, I am going to post a fun video from one of the musical acts that performed. Listen closely, even non-Spanish speakers might catch some of the broader social injustices that these guys are referring to.


Posted By Jessica Varat

Posted Jul 15th, 2009

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