PUTIS, Peru (Reuters) - Forensic scientists pulled human skeletons from the biggest known mass grave in Peru on Thursday, searching for proof the army slaughtered more than 100 people at a rocky pit during the 1980-2000 civil war.
Villagers in Putis who survived the 1984 massacre say they were lured to the site by the army to help build a community fishpond. The men, women and children from the Andean village had no idea they were digging their own mass grave.
According to Peru’s truth commission, the slaughter there was the worst of its kind during a war between the government and leftist insurgencies that took nearly 70,000 lives.
Many Peruvians are still haunted by the violence, and the exhumations in Putis mark the biggest step toward bringing people to justice since former President Alberto Fujimori was put on trial last year for human rights crimes.
“It causes me great pain that I lost my family, and I don’t know how they were killed,” said Viviana Fernandez, 55, who says her parents and siblings were murdered in the massacre.
Fernandez was one of about 50 Quechua-speaking people on hand to watch forensic scientists sort through the bones of family members dumped in the unmarked grave.
The brutal conflict pitted Peru’s military, police and peasant militias against two armed peasant groups — the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.
Shining Path’s Maoist radicals imposed a reign of terror in remote mountain villages, often forcing people to join its ranks at gunpoint.
A fearful army responded in kind, at times shooting anybody suspected of sympathizing with the group. In other cases, while hunting down Shining Path hiding in villages, it killed scores of innocent peasants, the truth commission said.
In Putis, perched on the barren slopes of the Andes at 11,400 feet, survivors say young women were taken aside and raped by troops.
An army spokesman said the abuse and killings should be investigated and prosecuted, but said individual offenders should be held responsible, not the armed forces.
About 700 former members of the armed forces are being investigated or prosecuted for crimes committed during the war.
In two weeks of digging, investigators have found 60 of the 123 bodies that the truth commission says were dumped at the grave, which has five burial chambers.
But lawyers who represent families of the missing say the number could rise to 300.
The bones are mixed together, making it hard to identify the victims, and the forensics team is looking for bullet casings that could be traced to guns used by the military.
“What is most disgusting is that among the remains are those of children aged 6 to 12,” said Nolbero Lamilla, director of the nongovernmental group Paz y Esperanza, which works with families of victims. “It shows they killed entire families.”
Additional reporting by Jean Luis Arce; Writing by Terry Wade; Editing by Dana Ford and Eric Walsh