Localizing disappearances: Dealing with the aftermath of atrocities in the highlands of Peru and in northern Somalia,dr Markus V. Hoehne

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dr Markus V. Hoehne

People in the highlands of Peru and in northern Somalia experienced partly similar kinds of violence in the 1980s. In both cases, relatively poorly equipped guerillas (Sendero Luminoso and Somali National Movement, respectively) revolted against powerful states and their armies. This resulted in prolonged warring in which systematic atrocities against the civilian population were conducted and thousands of people were disappeared. Until today, only a fraction of the missing people have been located (e.g., in mass graves), identified and reburied. Relatives in countries live since decades with the loss. Yet, it is interesting how differently this loss through forced disappearance is being dealt with in Peru and Somalia. Between 2015 and 2019 I conducted multi-sited ethnographic field research on the work of forensic anthropologists who had conducted exhumations and identifications in the Peruvian Andes, mainly in Ayacucho Region, and in northern Somalia (today’s secessionist Republic of Somaliland). The forensic work triggered quite different reactions in both settings. In northern Somalia/Somaliland, many ordinary people perceived the search for the missing and the exhumations and skeletal analyses related to it as disturbing and not in accordance with Islamic provisions. In the Peruvian Andes, people had a stronger need to gain clarity and were more welcoming towards forensic anthropologists, whose work was also more directly related to legal compensations within the framework of Peru’s truth and reconciliation arrangements. I argue that, besides the different legal and political frameworks, particularly religious orientations shaped the engagement with disappearances and their aftermath. In line with recent work by Kamari Clarke (2009 and 2019) as well as with critical anthropological engagements with justice after atrocities (Shaw et al. 2010, Wilson 2020), this presentation investigates the localization dynamics of disappearance in different cultural contexts. In this way, a double meaning of localizing disappearances is developed: besides the efforts by forensic anthropologists to localize the disappeared, the question is asked how disappearance is socially and culturally constructed in locations characterized by different cosmologies.

Markus Virgil Hoehne is a lecturer at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the University of Leipzig. His current project deals with "Forensic Anthropology in Cultural Contexts in Somaliland and Peru". In 2011 he completed his PhD on Identity and Conflict in Northern Somalia at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (supported by the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle/Saale). Between 2008 and 2013 he worked in several third-party funded projects on "Diasporas for Peace" and "Transitional justice in protracted conflict". He has published extensively on Somali politics, history and culture including the book "Between Somaliland and Puntland: Marginalization, militarization and conflicting political visions" (London: RVI 2015).


Clarke, K. 2009. Fictions of Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Challenge of Legal Pluralism in Sub-Saharan Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.
(2019) Affective Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Pan-Africanist Pushback. Durham: Duke University Press.
Shaw, R., L. Waldorf, and P. Hazan. 2010. Localizing Transitional Justice: Interventions and Priorities after Mass Violence. Stanford University Press.
Wilson, Richard Ashby 2020. Justice after Atrocity. In The Oxford Handbook of Law and Anthropology, edited by Marie-Claire Foblets, Mark Goodale, Maria Sapignoli and Olaf Zenker, 1-21 (Online)