‘A Strong Foot To Stand On’
It’s tempting to ask Melissa Simmill ‘What’s a pretty girl like you doing exhuming decaying bodies from mass graves?’
Don’t do it.
You won’t feel good about yourself.
Like me when I posed the question to the 24-year-old University of Northern BC student during an interview for this story.
It made no difference that her father, Fraser Valley RCMP Traffic Services Staff Sgt. Jim Simmill, was sitting by her side.
Melissa made it politely — but crystal clear — the question is old and getting older.
Her looks have nothing to do with her work — her very serious work — in the field of forensic anthropology, studying the impact of trauma on individual and collective memory.
And through her work, Simmill makes you understand, she is speaking for those who can no longer speak for themselves, for those who were murdered and dumped into mass graves by the hooligans who came to power in Peru and Somaliland in the 1980s.
And she also speaks for the survivors of those atrocities, for the mothers and fathers, the husbands and wives, of the disappeared.
Simmill is now their advocate — and an eloquent one — judging by her poise during the interview, and by the book she has written about her experiences in Peru entitled ‘The Man With No Feet.’
The book opens with the Indian proverb “I complained I had no shoes until I met the man with no feet.”
Simmill writes at the start of her book, “A wise man once said, you should never make a promise you cannot keep.
“My promise was to the people who opened their doors to us and revealed their traumatic pasts,” she continues. “I have promised to tell the stories contained in this book accurately and to the best of my ability. I am only one person, but I hope to one day find some way to give the people in this book a strong foot to stand on.”
The book is slight — just 31 pages of text and pictures — but it is a moving account of Simmill’s experiences last summer working with EPAF, the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team, an organization dedicated to unearthing the truth about the two decades of horror in Peru that claimed an estimated 70,000 lives between 1980 and 2000 and left that country riddled with 4,800 mass graves.
Simmill’s later experience as lab supervisor in an EPAF field school in Somaliland in October was different.
There, instead of working with survivors, she worked more with the physical remains of victims in two mass graves, unearthing and categorizing the bodies and determining a probable cause of death for each.
An estimated 60,000 people were massacred in Somaliland in the late 1980s by dictator Mohammed Siad Barre.
“It definitely presented quite a few risks that Peru didn’t have,” Simmill said, about the Somaliland field school, especially as the male-dominated culture there holds little respect for women.
Eighteen armed guards protected the EPAF crew 24/7.
But Simmill, perhaps astonishingly, called her month there her Somaliland “adventures.”
“You have to approach it with an adventurous attitude or else you’re going to be overwhelmed by what you’re seeing,” she said.
What she saw, day after day, at one grave site alone, was the remains of 41 bodies, many of them showing evidence of multiple gunshot wounds.
Simmill’s father, no stranger to investigating traumatic scenes the rest of us will thankfully never encounter, was not happy with his daughter’s decision to go to Somaliland.
But he is obviously proud of her “moxie.”
“She’s capable of going into very unusual circumstances and situations,” he said. “There’s only certain individuals who can do that.”
The evidence of atrocities and human rights violations that Simmill and fellow UNBC student Don Ireland collected in Somaliland will be sent to the United Nations’ War Crimes Commission.
Meanwhile, Simmill’s interviews with the survivors in Peru have given her a unique insight into human nature — and the importance of listening as a pathway to healing.
“The three weeks I spent in the highlands of the Ayacucho region of Peru ... have taught me more about life and survival than 23 years in Canada ever could have,” she writes in her book.
“We were there to study the traumatic history of these people, but instead I found myself looking at the traumatic present.”
As one survivor, Mama Edimera, who was four months pregnant when the Shining Path came to her village
and forced her husband-to-be into battle, told Simmill: “I know for most people it resurrects horrible memories to share these stories, but I feel that by telling someone it means that somebody is listening.”
“If somebody listens, we may be recognized; if we are recognized, we may get some form of help one day.”
The Peruvian government has promised “reparations” for the survivors, but to date Edimera has seen nothing: no education for her son, no land to grow her crops — but the government has thoughtfully installed a memorial plaque in the village plaza.
“I am 55 years old,” Edimera told Simmill, “and will not be able to receive my reparations until I am 65, what good will it do me then?”
According to a Peruvian truth and reconciliation commission, 54 per cent of the deaths were the work of the Shining Path, an insurgent communist party that arose in the 1980s as a kind of “Robin Hood” to the poor, but turned malevolent as the civil conflict continued.
A full 37 per cent of the deaths, the commission found, was the work of the Peruvian government
The villagers no longer knew who to trust in the conflict.
“I dream about soldiers
dressing up as the Shining Path (and) the Shining Path dressing up as soldiers, not knowing who to trust,” Mama Nancy, 36, told Simmill.
“It was like a game, you never knew who was coming or how to behave. If you acted wrong, you were dead,” she said.
In addition to the lingering individual trauma, Simmill found that whole communities had suffered a breakdown as a result of the conflict, which manifested itself in increased alcoholism, more domestic abuse, the neglect of children and a general loss of trust.
“As one gentleman said, ‘Before the conflict one hand washed the other,’” Simmill said.
“In other words, before the conflict, the villagers helped each other out, but after the conflict that tr
ust was gone,” she said. “It changed from helping each other out to helping only yourself, or requiring money or some sort of reward for helping your neighbour.”
Simmill wonders how rural communities in developed countries like Canada, less cohesive than those found in Peru, would fare under similar traumatic circumstances.
Without the right resources, she believes rural communities here could suffer the same fate.
“The survivors (in Peru) had a better sense of community than any known in Canada,” she said, and it was “humbling” to witness their continued resilience in the face of years of adversity.
“This is a nation of resilience who will not be silenced,” she said.
Simmill encourages all university students, no matter what their major, to get involved in multi-disciplinary field work programs like the one offered by EPAF.
“When you study psychology as an undergraduate, you don’t get to go into the field that often. You study the research and past studies, then write a test. You do not actually get to utilize your knowledge until after you graduate.”
But the EPAF field school in Peru gave her a chance to use her training in psychology to learn more about people — and about herself.
“Field schools such as this show you how to learn through trial and error and allow you to actually be a part of the real deal,” she said.
“There is no space for incompetence and although you are there to learn the importance of forensic work in human rights cases, what you are really gaining is perspective about yourself, the world and humanity,” she said.
For more information about EPAF go to epafperu.org/historia/?lang=en
Simmill’s book ‘The Man With No Feet’ will be available at Amazon and at bookstores in four months.