Closure: Peruvian natives bury the remains of dozens of people massacred in 1985

ACCOMARCA, Peru – Hundreds of people have gathered in this small Andean village for the burial of the remains of 50 victims of a brutal massacre by Peruvian soldiers in 1985.

For a day and a half before the May 20 funeral, relatives watched around dozens of ossuaries in the village church, where pews and doors bear the names of local Catholics who donated funds to rebuild it. The church had deteriorated after the massacre, as most of the remaining villagers fled.

Rituals and Catholic symbols filled the homes and streets of Accomarca for the three days. Pedro Huamani Baldeon, 60, carried a handmade cross just over two feet tall, on which he had painted flowers and the name of his mother, Maria Baldeon Rezza, one of the victims.

“I did it with all my love,” he said before going to find a priest to bless him with holy water.

The massacre was part of the military counterattack against the Maoist Shining Path, a terrorist group that launched its armed revolt against the Peruvian government in May 1980 in the mountainous region of Ayacucho, where Accomarca is located.

Between 1980 and 2000, the Shining Path and the Marxist Revolutionary Movement Tupac Amaru carried out armed actions against the Peruvian government. As in other parts of the world, the armed forces responded with a scorched earth strategy that caught indigenous peasants in the crossfire.

On August 15, 1985, an army patrol entered Accomarca, an isolated Quechua-speaking farming village two miles high in the Andes, which is still 12 hours by bus from Lima, the Peruvian capital. Military officers believed that some people in the community were planning to attack nearby areas where the Self-Defense Forces had killed terrorists several days earlier.

The soldiers rounded up the residents, tortured the men and raped the women, then forced them into two thatched-roof adobe huts. They then set fire to the huts while firing machine gun bullets at them.

Throughout the 1980s, the armed forces carried out similar massacres in rural Quechua communities in the highlands. In an effort to eliminate certain subversives, they killed entire neighborhoods, including children, the elderly and pregnant women. In Accomarca, 26 of the victims were children.

Of the nearly 70,000 people killed in the 20 years of political violence, 75% were Quechua-speaking farmers, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which released a nine-volume report on the violence in 2003. The commission determined that the Shining Path was responsible for 54% of the deaths and the armed forces for 29%.

In most cases of human rights violations, survivors have fled and their formal complaints to authorities have stagnated. In the case of Accomarca, however, several senators learned of the murders, visited the village a few days later, and wrote a report.

After a court martial, which failed to determine who was responsible for the massacre, a trial in a civilian court ended in 2016 with the conviction of 10 soldiers, of whom only five are in prison. One, Telmo Hurtado, a lieutenant who led anti-subversive patrols, was extradited from the United States in 2011.

Exhumation of the Accomarca victims began in 2006, but identification of the remains was delayed by a lack of funding for the government’s forensic laboratory. Plans to return the victims’ remains to their families in March 2020 have been derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Because the bodies were badly charred and so many years had passed, experts were only able to identify the remains of 50 of the 70 victims. Government officials and representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross have made the symbolic return of dozens of other people, represented by clothes they wore on the day of the massacre, or by photos, drawings, letters or personal belongings .

Each ossuary was adorned with a silver cross. On the afternoon of May 18, they were carried to the church, which was filled with flowers – some real, some fabric – brought by relatives and a team from the Ministry of Justice.

In the late afternoon, villagers sang Quechua hymns and Brazilian Pallotine Father Marcone Castro, pastor of Our Lady of Carmel Parish in the town of Vilcas Huaman, recited prayers. Father Castro drove 90 minutes on a dirt road from his parish to Accomarca.

On May 19, two women who had managed to hide on the day of the massacre, Teofila Ochoa and Cirila Pulido, led a pilgrimage to the ravine where the killings took place. There, next to the crosses bearing the names of the victims, a local man sang a hymn in Quechua. Mayor Fernando Ochoa has asked for donations for the upkeep of the sanctuary, called the Llocllapampa Ecological Sanctuary, and some people displaced by the violence have contributed on the spot.

On the night of May 19, the candlelit church was packed as Father Manuel Cardoso, also a Brazilian Pallottine, celebrated mass. exacerbated by the fact that the community remains impoverished, with no job opportunities, no health services or even no paved road.

During the official May 20 ceremony marking the return of the remains, before the burial, several people spoke, including two ministers, human rights activists, the local mayor, the Reverend Javier Pulido of Accomarca and Father Cardoso, who read the names of the victims as the funeral procession made its way to the tomb, a few meters from the ruins of the old military base.

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