WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
22 Sep 2015 | Commentary | News

How the film ‘NN’ explores issues of the missing in Peru

WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt introduced the film 'NN' at the American Film Institute's Latin American Film Festival, where she spoke about enforced disappearances in Peru during the years of political violence. A transcription of her speech is below:

It is a pleasure to be here with you this evening. I am deeply honored to have been asked to introduce this very special new film from Peru, NN.

NN is a Latin term, ‘nomen nescio’, used to refer to a person whose identity is not known. No name. Sin identidad.

It’s a term that has come to have special significance in Latin America, a region that experienced decades of military dictatorship and civil conflicts in which tens of thousands of people went missing. Students, farmers, workers, teachers, university professors.

45,000 in Guatemala. 30,000 in Argentina. 15,000 in Peru. 200,000 in Colombia. 20,000 in Mexico. These are mind-boggling numbers.

Often they were taken from their homes in the middle of the night by military or paramilitary personnel and were never seen or heard from again. This is a film about the missing, the desaparecidos.

This story takes place in Peru, a country that experienced a brutal internal armed conflict between 1980 and 2000, when a Maoist organization known as Shining Path sought to overthrow the state and impose a communist revolution using violence and terrorist tactics, while government forces responded with indiscriminate and often equally brutal forms of violence.

According to an official truth commission, 69,000 Peruvians lost their lives in this conflict, among them 15,000 people who were forcibly disappeared, primarily by government agents, and who remain missing. To date –a decade and a half after the conflict came to an end— only a small number of those who went missing have been found and their bodies returned to their family members, so that they may given them a proper burial.

As a human rights activist and researcher who has worked in Latin America for nearly three decades, I have interviewed and interacted with hundreds of people who have a father, a mother, a son or a daughter, a sister or a brother, who were detained by the military and were never seen or heard from again. Let me share with you a few stories about some of these people.

People like Raida Condor. Raida’s son Armando Amaro Condor was a student at La Cantuta University in Lima, Peru. He was 19 years old when on July 18, 1992, he along with 8 other students and a university professor, were taken from their dorm rooms in the middle of the night. They were missing for more than a year when information led investigators to a gravesite where the partial remains of Armando and some of the other students were found. Raida and the other relatives of the victims sought to hold those responsible accountable, an odyssey that took 17 years. In 2009, the president of Peru at the time of Armando’s disappearance, Alberto Fujimori, was convicted for this and other human rights crimes and sent to prison for 25 years. The family members continue to search for the bodies of five of the students whose bodies remain missing.

Adelina García Mendoza is from Ayacucho. Her story highlights the way the absence of knowledge about what happened to your missing loved one is excruciating and never ending anguish. Adelina’s husband, Zósimo Tenorio Prado, was a university student in Huamanga, the capital city of Ayacucho, and the birthplace of the Shining Path insurgency. Late one evening in December 1983, members of the army broke into their home and dragged Zosimo away. To this day Adelina does not know what happened to her husband. She told me once that though she knows he is probably dead, she retains a sliver of hope that he may still be alive. She knows this is not rational. But, she told, more than once she has found herself walking on the streets of Huamanga and she sees someone who looks like her husband, and for an instant her heart stops because she thinks it might be him. His absence, and her unanswered questions about what happened to him and where his body is, have defined her life. She is the president of ANFASEP, the Peruvian Association of the Disappeared, and she and hundreds of others like her continue to search for los desaparecidos.

A couple of years ago I was in Huamanga, Ayacucho observing criminal proceedings against several high-ranking military officials who are on trial for a series of crimes that occurred in principal military base of Ayacucho, known as Los Cabitos, during 1983. About half of 59 victims represented in this case are victims of forced disappearance. I’ll never forget the testimony of the young Nora Quispe Ccallocunto. Her father is one of the disappeared. Eladio Quispe was detained on September 15, 1983 and brought to Los Cabitos; he was never heard from again. Nora was just a year old. She spoke about her mother, Guadalupe Ccallocunto, who dedicated herself tirelessly to find out what had happened to her father. In her search, Guadalupe began meeting other women whose husbands or children had also been disappeared. Guadalupe spoke Spanish, unlike the vast majority of victims, who are from rural indigenous communities and whose native language is Quechua, so she began to help them in their search for their missing loved ones. She is one of the founding members of ANFASEP. In 1990, Guadalupe was also disappeared.

A book publishsed in 2004 by journalist Ricardo Uceda provided details about what happened at Los Cabitos. A military intelligence officer told Uceda that the military command ordered ovens be built to eliminate the bodies of those who had been killed and buried on the outskirts of Los Cabitos. The intelligence officer said that he personally was responsible for the cremation of some 300 corpses, among them Nora’s father, who he remembered because he participated in his detention and interrogation in 1983. The Public Ministry conducted exhumations at Los Cabitos between 2005 and 2008. Cristina Olazábal, the state prosecutor who first investigated the Los Cabitos case, told me that they had found some 100 bodies, as well as the ovens build to cremate the victims, pipes used to fuel the ovens, and several hundred tons of ashes. To date only three of the bodies exhumed in Los Cabitos have been positively identified. Nora, who is now 33, is still waiting to know the truth about what happened to her parents. The trial in this case is still ongoing.

Forced disappearance is double crime. It is a crime against the individual who is detained and then disappeared. And it is a crime against the relatives of that person, who are denied information about the fate of their missing loved ones and who are left searching for any piece of information that can help them find out the truth and locate their remains so that they can give them a proper burial. Forced disappearance is a crime that destroys not only the individual who is its principal victim; it destroys the families of the victims as well.

WOLA has worked closely over the years with partner organizations in Peru and elsewhere in Latin America on the issue of the missing, denouncing this criminal practice and supporting the demands of the relatives for justice, and above all, their demands for truth. The film we are about to see, NN, by Peruvian director Hector Galvez, is a powerful fictionalized version of what is a real and ongoing struggle in many countries in Latin America. It makes visible what is in essence a clandestine crime; it conveys the anguish that forced disappearance provokes among the relatives of the vict
ims; and it shows how dedicated professionals in places like Peru work side by side with the victims to piece together evidence to help them find their loves ones and bring some kind of closure to their suffering. This film takes place in Peru, but its message is relevant for post conflict societies throughout the world. Addressing the legacy of human rights violations is not only important to healing the victims; it is also essential to healing society itself, and is the foundation of true reconciliation.