Latin America & Caribbean

Scarf of Hope to remember Peru's missing

Women assemble the Scarf of Hope
Image caption The scarf is a physical reminder of all those missing and dead in Peru's conflict

There is something warmly familiar and comforting about the quiet chatter of women and the clickety-clack of knitting needles.

Standing or sitting huddled together in small groups, the knitters dressed in traditional Andean hats, big "pollera" skirts and draped with a "manta" or shawl, form a multi-coloured feast for the eyes.

But they have more in common than knitting. These women are some of thousands in Peru who lost husbands, brothers and sons in the country's bitter internal conflict between the Mao-inspired rebels of the Shining Path rebels and state forces in the 1980s and 90s.

Each one is knitting a message or epitaph to their loved one the size of an A4 sheet of page which will form part of an enormous scarf which, it is hoped, will reach a kilometre in length.

It is being called the Scarf of Hope and it aims to be more than just a symbol of Peru's estimated 15,000 "disappeared" but a physical reminder that in the majority of cases their relatives live on without ever knowing how they died nor where to find their remains.

"It's like a piece of memory," says Marina Garcia Burgos, a Lima-based photographer who was inspired to initiate the project with two colleagues while working in Ayacucho.

"Each woman chooses the colour and the knit of her panel. As well as embroidering the loved one's name, some also sew on a piece of their clothing or a photograph."

But its significance goes beyond that. In the remoter corners of the Andes, textiles have been the clues used to identify exhumed human remains where ID documents are a rarity.

For the women fortunate enough to have positively identified and laid to rest the body of an exhumed loved one, in so many cases it was by recognising the colour and feeling the knit or weave of the fabric wrapped around the remains.

More often than not - as was the case in Peru's biggest mass grave exhumation and human remains restitution in Putis, Ayacucho - they themselves remember knitting the jumper or turning up the trousers worn by the victim.

Mass graves

While the government has begun exhumations there is a long way to go. Peru has more than 4,500 registered burial sites, yet fewer than 2% of the bodies have been identified, according to the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (Epaf), a non-government organisation.

Image caption The faces of many of the "disappeared" have been knitted into the scarf

In July, Peruvian police officers moved around 25 scarf knitters, along with their needles and bags of wool, from outside Lima's Palace of Justice.

Undeterred the women settled across the street and encouraged passers-by in traffic-choked downtown Lima to join them in a knitathon or tejidoton. Many hard-bitten Limenos were sympathetic towards the women and curious to hear their stories.

They would have heard stories like that of Adelina Garcia, president of the National Association of Families of the Kidnapped, Detained and Disappeared of Peru (ANFASEP), an organisation almost exclusively made up of around 500 women in Ayacucho, the region which was the epicentre of the violence.

"Hooded soldiers kicked in the door of our bedroom, swearing and shouting. There were around 20 of them, they grabbed my husband," she says, recounting in a clear, unwavering voice the event which cut short the married life she shared with her 27-year-old husband, Zosimo Tenorio.

"I shouted: 'Why are you taking my husband' but they beat me too and as I lay passed out on the floor, they searched everywhere but found nothing, then left with him."

Aged just 19, she miscarried their second child after the beating she received. But soon after she went to the notorious Los Cabitos military base to ask the soldiers what they had done with her husband. It was December 1983.

Twenty-seven years later and she still does not have an answer. But in the last few years dozens of human remains have been exhumed on the grounds of Los Cabitos, and a furnace was discovered in which an unknown number of bodies had been cremated.

Mammoth task

As heartbreaking, tragic and infuriating as it is, Adelina's story is not unusual in the organisation she now leads.

But what frustrates her even more is that none of them have ever received promised state damages for their personal loss and suffering.

Image caption The women took their knitting protest to outside the Palace of Justice

"Ten of the women in the organisation have died without receiving a penny since I became president in 2009. Some had been waiting for nearly 30 years," she says.

Her voice is part of a clamour of an estimated 76,000 relatives registered to receive damages from the government Reparations Council, which runs the Victims Registry.

The government has now pledged individual reparations payments will begin in 2011, six years after the Integral Reparations Plan was signed into law in 2005.

One of the problems was that the list of beneficiaries had to be completed before payments could begin, says Jesus Aliaga, who heads the National Reparations Council. He says this is now no longer the case and the list will stay permanently open.

"We could have done things better," he admits while explaining progress had been hindered by the mammoth task of trying to identify the relatives of the victims, the majority of whom were Quechua-speaking, illiterate and undocumented and living in extremely poor rural areas.

It is seven years since Peru's state-appointed Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that 69,280 people were killed in the country's internal conflict.

The beneficiaries of state reparations would number, at the very least, double the commission's estimated number of dead, says Mr Aliaga, which is likely to test available public funds.

Meanwhile, the knitters continue to knit and their number grows. The Scarf of Hope is expected to reach a kilometre in length before the end of the year.

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