Burial of Peru’s Shining Path Conflict Victims Marks End of Long Wait

Lima, Peru – As the 21st century began, most Peruvians thought they had put the brutal conflict between the Maoist-inspired Shining Path and government forces behind them. However, the families of the victims of this savagery have continued to endure the pain of waiting for up to 40 years to give their relatives a proper burial.

The devastating conflict, largely fought in Peru’s rural Andes, left a trail of destruction in its wake. Peasant families were caught in the crossfire between the fanatical Shining Path fighters and the brutal counterattacks of the Peruvian armed forces. Between 1980 and 2000, nearly 70,000 people lost their lives, with Shining Path fighters responsible for about 54% of the deaths and the military for the rest.

For families of the victims, the pain has been compounded by the forced disappearances that were used to cover up the atrocities committed by both sides. As of November 2023, 22,551 people were still missing from this dark period in Peru’s history, according to the national register of disappeared people.

Musuk Nolte, a 35-year-old photographer, took on a decade-long project to document the journey of restitution, mourning, and burial undertaken by the relatives of the victims. His goal was to create a visual record that could contribute to the processes of historical memory and help bring closure to these families.

Nolte has captured the various stages of restitution of the bodies of their loved ones, utilizing black and white photography to convey the depth of emotion and mourning in these communities. From communal wakes to burial ceremonies, Nolte’s work paints a poignant picture of the interminable wait endured by these families.

Unfortunately, the struggle for restitution continues, with many families facing bureaucratic obstacles and discrimination as they seek closure. The largely poor, rural, and Quechua-speaking inhabitants of the region have little experience with state bureaucracy and have often been neglected by those who deny the painful realities of what took place.

One of Nolte’s first assignments as a young photographer was to capture the aftermath of a military death squad’s killing of relatives in Pativilca during the regime of Alberto Fujimori. This experience inspired him to document the lives of those waiting for restitution of their disappeared loved ones.

His work has also shed light on some of the most notorious massacres in Peru’s history, including the 1984 “Death Express,” where Shining Path insurgents murdered more than 100 people. Many years later, the remains of 17 of the victims were finally laid to rest.

Despite the passing of 20 years since the findings of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, progress in restoring remains to the families has been slow. Nolte’s work highlights the ongoing struggle for closure and acknowledgment of their grief and pain. Yet, amidst their continued wait, they must also contend with the resurgence of violence and military force that they had hoped to leave in the past.

The stories captured by Nolte’s lens provide a heartbreaking glimpse into the enduring grief and injustice faced by the families of the victims. Through his powerful imagery, Nolte has given voice to their pain and the interminable quest for restitution and closure.

The raw emotions and poignant moments Nolte has captured in Peru’s Andean region provide a powerful testament to the strength and resilience of these communities as they wait for the closure they so desperately seek.