Expert Witness: Karin Orr, Working in Peru with the Families of the DisappearedOn September 23, 2019 by Ann Brown
THE FAMILIES OF THE DISAPPEARED endure a unique struggle to keep the memory of a loved alive along with a search for justice. Helping in that process is Karin Orr, who this past summer worked as the Advocacy Project Peace Fellow for the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF).
Orr took part in The Humanitarian Project, an initiative by EPAF dedicated to empowering family members of Peru’s disappeared. Currently, there are 15,000 people reported as disappeared by Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and 4,644 registered mass burial sites. The Commission found that over 40 percent of the deaths and disappearances were concentrated in Ayacucho.
The Humanitarian Umbrella Project is working with 240 family members from the rural Ayacucho region. Orr’s time in Peru brought her into direct contact with this community.
Listening to recorded testimony from family member of the disappeared. Image: Karin Orr.
“I worked side by side with those who were fighting not only to remember, but also to carry on the memory of their disappeared loved ones. And to pierce the culture of silence that once guaranteed impunity for the perpetrators.”
The Activist Writer: What was your role in working with EPAF?
Karin Orr: It was in a capacity for advocacy, to provide a space so the diverse stories of the disappeared could be heard and disseminated to those who otherwise have no idea what happened in Peru. One minute I’d be working on the website in the Lima office while by the end of the night I’d be dancing in a drum circle outside of a church after attending a mass in honor of victims of the disappeared, or spending my morning attending a demonstration and then being kicked off of the Palacio Justicia with my arms full of yarn, accompanied by 20 women in their traditional garb chewing coca leaves.
TAW: What are the chief challenges facing Peruvian families in their search for information and justice?
KO: Currently the government is literally sitting on the investigation of Peru’s mass grave sites, exhausting the family members with the amount of bureaucracy involved in pursuing a case, or waiting for an opportune time to pass a decree that gives amnesty to any potential perpetrator of the violence during that epoch.
TAW: What’s the government’s role in the prosecution of these cases?
KO: The State reserves sole authority to conduct the exhumations made by institutions linked to the public prosecution office. Unless they are specifically asked to provide a specialist report by the public prosecution office or by the courts, NGOs can’t participate in the exhumations. This means that before a grave is excavated and exhumed there has to be a court order linked to a prosecution. Those cases are at the whim of government action, which is null. Well, with the disappeared, family members don’t know who to prosecute, so many cases that have already been filed aren’t even dealt with.
TAW: How difficult is it for ordinary citizens in Peru to come to terms with their history of human rights atrocities and the disappeared?
KO: There is a clear division between those who are struggling to forget and those who are fighting to remember, a real disconnect between the two motives. And because the majority of the victims were native Quechua speakers, the division also has an ethnic component. This is a residual of colonialism, but also reinforced by the internal armed conflict and now by the state’s negligence. To complicate things even further, there are still supporters of Alberto Fujimori who strongly believe his dissolving of Congress in the ’90s and tactics of counter terrorism, especially with the successful capture of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman, put an end to 20 years of violence. If as a citizen or even an organization you are working to uncover the past—where both terrorists and the state were perpetrators of violence—you are easily mistaken as an empathizer of ‘terrorism.’
TAW: How does that affect human rights advocates?
KO: Standing up for human rights is threatening because it means you are working against a state that many believe ultimately did everything within their power to protect its citizens against terrorism. But that is just not true. As an advocate for human rights you are fighting for everyone to have access to those rights, and for justice for everyone who had them taken away, without being selective about who is responsible for violating them. I think the fear is that exhumations reveal and convey scientific evidence and if a state doesn’t want its own citizens to pursue these investigations then it clearly looks as though it has something to hide.
TAW: In listening to stories from survivors, it seems it particularly affects women in the community.
KO: Imagine one day your son leaves the dinner table to use the bathroom, which in the poorer regions are typically outside, and then never returns. You never see him again. Not only were many of these women struggling to search for their missing loved ones, travelling long distances, and even risking their lives in many cases, they are also responsible for taking care of their families financially. This is part of why many of them have been struggling for years to receive individual economic reparations, which may not even be a very large sum, but to them, it means a lot.
TAW: What are some of the ways the women are working for recognition and justice?
KO: I documented the knitting of “La Chalina de la Esperanza” (The Scarf of Hope) which is an extremely long scarf with the embroidered names and pictures of the disappeared on each panel. Many of the women from ANFASEP are the core knitters of the scarf. Their goal is to have an 800-meter scarf to then put on display.
TAW: What can someone do who wants to help?
KO: You can find links to non-profits in Peru that work around the issue of the disappeared on my blog. EPAF‘s campaigns support the family members of the disappeared in Peru and throughout Latin America and the world. EPAF conducts forensic trainings in Asia, Africa, and other parts of Latin Americ to build the capacity of the state and civil society to recognize forensic standards in cases of forced disappearances and extrajudicial execution.
TAW: What do you take away from your work this summer?
KO: Staying informed is invaluable. Not very many people, particularly in the U.S., but even in Peru, are aware the internal conflict occurred or the amount of violence it imposed, and still imposes, on its citizens. Because those affected the most are also some of the poorest with the least amount of political representation, their stories are often left unheard. Just being at EPAF made me realize how relevant forensic work is when rediscovering truth and helping a nation heal.