Between May 1980 and November 2000, Peru lived through an internal war between the Maoist subversive movement Sendero Luminoso and the Peruvian state. In the middle, as in many other places, was the civilian population, the victim of terrorist crimes against humanity and human rights violations by state agents and the subversive group. According to official figures, this conflict “resulted in 229 thousand civilian, police and military victims, 5,712 thousand communities that suffered devastation and losses, and 159 organizations of displaced persons, according to information from the Single Registry of Victims (RUV).” The Registro Nacional de Personas Desaparecidas y Sitios de Entierro, RENADE, (National Registry of Missing Persons and Burial Sites), as of January 2022, has registered 21,647 missing persons, of which the search for 1858 has concluded.
In 2001, and despite the state of national instability, the Comisión de la Verdad y la Reconciliación (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) was created to investigate crimes and violations during the internal armed conflict. A few years later, the Comisión Multisectorial de Alto Nivel para las Reparaciones, CMAN, (High-Level Multisectoral Commission for Reparations) was born. In 2016, with the support of these institutions, Jesús Cossio, Alejandro Olazo, and Illari Orccottoma initiated the Retratos de memoria project.
Jesús Cossio is a cartoonist. He has been working for several years, making comics about real cases of political violence in Peru. Thanks to this work, he was contacted by CMAN. He worked for them for several years doing workshops for children from areas historically affected by violence. The objective was to tell some stories they had heard from their parents and older relatives and their memories or opinions about the conflict. They asked him to make spoken portraits of missing persons who had no photos or whose photos had deteriorated.
Thus began Retratos de memoria, a project that includes photographer Alejandro Olazo and producer Illari Orccottoma. Alejandro has been doing photography for ten years, and one of the most exciting subjects is recording the post-conflict process in Peru. In particular, he has been working for six to seven years in the search for missing persons. In that search, he contacted Katherine Valenzuela of CMAN, and she put him in contact with Jesús. Illari Orccottoma is a producer from the audiovisual world, working in film production. In this project, she is the one who accompanies and advises on logistics to develop the project. She is vital in designing methodological work strategies and disseminating all the work they produce.
Monitoring of the exhumation of some bodies from the Zevallos case, carried out by the Specialized Forensic Team (EFE) in the company of the General Directorate for the Search for Disappeared Persons (DGBPD) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). June 2021
In the Junín region, data collection work during the exhumation of the Zevallos family, whom Sendero Luminoso murdered. June 2021.
Jesús: It was an idea that came to Katherine Valenzuela of CMAN, and we developed the method. In Peru, the number of disappeared people is enormous. The particularity is that many of them are Quechua-speaking peasants of whom there are precarious records. Those who register them are their families, but for some state and social agencies, they do not exist.
The project arose because the trials are taking place 25 or 30 years later, so in the judicial hearings, the relatives usually stand at the doors of the trials. It is very symbolic of having a photo of a relative. So, we first imagine this project, for they have an image to show during the hearings. Then it has been extended to other ways of expressing that presence.
You can tell a little bit about each of the phases of the process. You start with a record of testimonies, right?
Alejandro: Our first approach with the project, in general, was with this recent delivery of remains from the Accomarca case. When we proposed to start the project, we approached the Association, and they have a place here in a district called Ate-Vitarte on the outskirts of Lima. We participated in an assembly to explain to the men and women our intention of creating these portraits with them. We can make this first sketch of the picture with their memories and some deteriorated image.
In that meeting, we agreed to return so we could do some interviews calmly. Then we did three or four interviews. The family member who participates has to be someone close to the missing person because the first thing we ask is who resembles the family member who disappeared and if the eyes, nose, cheekbones, whole face, the skin color resembles. These data help us so that Jesus can imagine the person’s portrait. I made a photographic portrait and took features of the person portrayed, and together with the memories they gave us during the interview, we could make the first sketch. I would also take profile and half-body photos to get more details. I also record the whole process of approaching and talking to people.
Direct relatives of the victims of the Accomarca case are photographed to use their physiognomy and features that will serve,
along with their testimonies, as an initial base to create the portraits.
Record of one of the few photographs of the victim kept by one of the families in the Accomarca case. This photo, together with the testimony of the relatives, was used as a basis to propose a portrait.
What was it like at the moment of the interviews?
Jesús: We have worked on two cases. The first one is symbolic, the Accomarca case was a murder of 69 people, including men, women, children, and pregnant mothers, and at that time, it was on trial. In other cases, we have always done the second part in historically affected communities. For both cases, there is always a mediator, the CMAN, or the General Direction of Search for Missing Persons. I mean, there is always someone who explains to them and with whom they are more familiar because they see them very often, so it is easier for us.
There are very emotional moments. Over time we have learned not to victimize through the interviews because we are just one of the many people who go to interview them and ask about their cases. We do not want to generate moments of pain or tension. So now we do very brief interviews focused on the traits of the person they want to portray.
Somehow that person not only “appears” in the illustrated portrait but also in the faces of their close relatives.
Jesús: Yes, that is why they must be immediate family members, and if they are not, they must remember something about the missing person. We emphasize that it is not a technical forensic portrait but a symbolic portrait. It is a new project that plays a lot with the subjectivity of the people, so one of the things that interest us is not to end up affirming things that for the relatives are not so. For example, we could not assure that all the relatives take it for granted, when they see the portrait, that their relative was like that.
Ossuaries in the former military base minutes before being buried, May 2022
The next phase is the sketches. What happens at that moment?
Jesús: After Alejandro takes the photos, we review that material and compare it with the interviews. Then I start sketching to see if I have all the data precisely. The discussions are an enlightening and exciting process. You realize even we who are familiar with some of the conflict, the complexity, and the enormity of the emotional damage caused. Thirty years have passed, and the wounds are still there. Many of the stories we hear have to do with the uncertainty of not knowing what happened to the relative.
I remember the story of a man whose father was working on his harvest and was detained by the military. They had forbidden people to go down to the harvest area because, supposedly there, they had contact with the terrorists. This gentleman was detained with two other people who had also gone to their crops. Despite the prohibition, they were taken to a military barracks, and the next day, a neighbor who had also been taken to jail appears and tells him, “hey, your father is detained. You have to go there.” But when the family arrives, they can’t find him. This person is convinced that this neighbor accused his father of escaping. Otherwise, how else would he have managed to escape? He has confronted him twice, and that person always denies it.
Does this part of the sketch happen only at home or in the field? Do you show several versions or sketches to people?
Jesús: I do a sketch, and ideally, the family members are presented with two or three versions until they are happy. The pandemic has complicated that, so we hope to do it now. In the case of Accomarca we did have time because most of the relatives live in Lima. Sometimes, you have a portrait that a person has seen four times, and six months later, they say, “well, actually, I just remembered such and such, and I want you to change it.” And when the person is already happy, we prepare it to give it away in a ceremony.
Alejandro: I record all our approaches before, during, and after the sketch is ready.
Jesús: it is less emotional than people imagine. The truth is that it is efficient because adjustments and changes are still being made. What happens is that they are reserved people, we are, in a certain sense, strangers, and sometimes it is difficult to get them to ask for changes.
What is it like to receive the final image?
Jesús: It is stimulating, and again there are fewer words than people think because they express their emotions differently. It is not a literate environment. They will not say it with a speech, but they get excited. So do we, and it means a lot to us.
Alejandro: for example, in the case of ACCOMARCA, we presented the project in the first stage before the remains were handed over, and it took place at the Lugar de la Memoria here in Lima. They have a section called the White Cube where they place some clothes or an object of the disappeared person, and the relatives of the ACCOMARCA case had the opportunity that the object or the closest thing they had were these symbolic portraits that our team had made.
It was incredible because the room was crowded with relatives, curious people, and intellectuals or authorities who were participating. I don’t think I was aware of the magnitude of the project in which I was involved until that ceremony, which was very emotional. And then for me, it had a much more beautiful closure because with all the people who managed to place their photograph in the white cube we went to the premises of the Association where they were celebrating, with a big party, St. Augustine, the patron saint of the district.
After 37 years of the massacre perpetrated by the military, the delivery of the remains was made. All the coffins were buried in the old military base of Accomarca. Some of the relatives used the portraits to put on the coffins. I keep the image of one of the relatives with his hand on one of the portraits.