The process of identifying remains and restoring a sense of humanity to people who have vanished and been ignominiously murdered may be one of the most humanitarian acts one can commit.
“To me, the very essence of humanitarianism is a respect for human dignity and human life in the face of forces that seek to strip those rights from the powerless,” says bioarchaeology PhD student, Maricarmen Vega.
Having worked with the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF) since 2006, Vega returns a degree of dignity to los desparecidos (the disappeared) of Peru by identifying the remains of those who went missing during two decades of internal strife. The struggle, between successive governments and a pair of terrorist organizations during the 1980s and 1990s, led to 69,000 deaths and an estimated 8,500-15,000 disappearances.
The 2003 Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission report into these atrocities paints a picture of systematic torture, kidnapping and assassinations by all parties involved, but left many questions unanswered. To this day, families continue to search for justice and closure for the thousands who remain missing.
“I am particularly interested in human rights and want to apply my knowledge of bioarchaeology on behalf of the living,” Vega says.
The skills she employs during exhumations and analyses of victims of war crimes and human rights abuses allow EPAF to provide evidence for judicial prosecution and to help identify victims so families can recover the remains of loved ones, give them a dignified burial and gain a degree of closure about their deaths. In the process, Vega is shedding an important light on a dark period in Peru’s recent history.
Over the past five years, she has worked with EPAF on a variety of cases, including the notable excavation of a mass grave for 123 people shot in Putis by the Peruvian army in 1984. Vega’s expertise in the analysis of children’s bones and commingled human remains enabled her to become an expert witness for the prosecution of perpetrators of the largest single massacre of the country’s armed conflict.
Given the far-reaching nature and high number of perpetrators, these cases – including one that led to the prosecution of former President Alberto Fujimori – require a high degree of courage, professionalism, sensitivity and awareness of potential dangers.
Vega’s background as a forensic anthropologist has also led her to prepare a series of manuals EPAF now uses worldwide. “They are a part of the material EPAF shares with justice and human rights organizations around the world to clarify the importance of forensic anthropologists as key contributors to the investigation of crimes against humanity,” she says. “They also guarantee ‘the right to know’ of families of the disappeared, which is one of the most important steps of grief closure in these cases.”
Vega will use the $2,500 she earned from the Western Humanitarian Award to return to Peru and to continue her work with EPAF, which is putting faces and names to the bones of the disappeared.