They rode white horses

Peter Canby, London Review of Books, Sept.12, 2013

  • Intimate Enemies: Violence and Reconciliation in Peru by Kimberly Theidon
    Pennsylvania, 461 pp, £49.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 8122 4450 2

Kimberly Theidon is an example of a new breed of anthropologist, one bearing some resemblance to a political activist. Her book is part of a series of studies in human rights but one of the blurbs on the jacket calls it an ethnography. Its subject is the process of reconciliation that followed a failed, exceptionally violent uprising by Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, a Maoist group founded by a provincial philosophy professor in Peru called Abimael Guzmán, who hoped, as Theidon puts it, to ‘mobilise the peasantry, surround the cities, and strangle the urbanised coast into submission’.

Shining Path’s first ‘armed action’ took place in 1980, timed for maximum visibility, on the day of a national election. The movement fell apart 12 years later, after Guzmán was captured in Lima, in hiding in a flat above a ballet studio. But over the years it was active there were savage battles between Shining Path, the Peruvian army and the rondas campesinas – paramilitary patrols of villagers, intended to repel the guerrillas. In parts of the remote highlands – particularly in Ayacucho, where Guzmán had taught and the movement was based – the violence was extreme. Both sides committed massacres, as villagers fought hand to hand – sometimes against their neighbours. This was not, Theidon writes, ‘a sanitised war in which buttons were pushed and bombs delivered. The fighting was carried out with knives, rocks, slingshots, tirachas (homemade guns).’ Houses were burned and 65 per cent of the fields in Ayacucho were abandoned. The countryside was littered with pueblos fantasmas, ghost towns. Most livestock was killed; many residents fled for safety to mountain caves. There, in an effort to ‘trick their stomachs’, mothers fed their children water flavoured with salt, but many died of starvation. All told, between 1980 and 1992, seventy thousand Peruvians were killed. As Theidon notes, 79 per cent of the victims were rural and three quarters were speakers of Quechua or other native languages. In virtually every other insurgency in Latin America the vast majority of the killing was done by the state; here slightly more than half was committed by Shining Path itself.

Theidon’s interest in Shining Path began in 1987, when she first visited Peru as an undergraduate at the University of California Santa Cruz. Her initial stay was brief. The war was raging and it was a time of hyperinflation, curfews and blackouts – Santa Cruz soon stopped sending its students to Peru. But Theidon stayed long enough to be able to frame what she sees as ‘deceptively simple questions’ about the conflict: ‘how do people commit acts of lethal violence against individuals with whom they have lived for years? How can family members and neighbours become enemies one is willing to track down and kill?’ When Theidon returned to Peru in 1995, the war was over and she began working with Quechua-speaking communities, wanting not just to find the answers to her questions but to ‘explore how people reconstruct individual lives and collective existence in the aftermath of war’.

There was another question Theidon wanted answered. In its early years, the war in the highlands had seemed remote from Lima. That changed after an incident in 1983 that brought Shining Path to international attention. Eight journalists from newspapers in Lima arrived in Ayacucho, intending to investigate a story that peasants in Huaychao, a remote town, had violently repelled members of Shining Path – a movement that billed itself as champion of the rural poor. The army (which the new civilian government had been reluctant to involve in the conflict) had only just been allowed to launch its counter-insurgency campaign and Lima’s leftist press were claiming that the reports of villagers driving off Shining Path were part of its disinformation campaign. On their way to Huaychao, the journalists and their Quechua-speaking guide arrived unannounced in Uchuraccay, a nearby Indian town, where they were attacked by villagers, who bludgeoned and hacked them to death. Willy Retto, one of the journalists, managed to take pictures of what happened before he too was murdered and buried, with his camera, in a shallow grave.

The massacre of the journalists horrified Peruvians – especially after Retto and his camera were exhumed and his gruesome photographs were splashed across the front pages of Lima’s tabloids. In response, Peru’s president, Fernando Belaúnde Terry, appointed a commission to investigate what had happened; it included several Peruvian anthropologists and was headed by Mario Vargas Llosa. The commission members were helicoptered into Uchuraccay, where they spent a morning. Some time later, they produced a report that blamed the murders on the violent nature of Peru’s indigenous population. Vargas Llosa spoke in interviews of the backwardness of Andean society and elaborated a theory which held that there were ‘two Perus’: the prosperous urban Peru in which people participated ‘in the 20th century’, and the rural highlands where people lived ‘in the 19th century, or perhaps even the 18th’.

The Vargas Llosa report set off an acrimonious debate inside Peru. Among other things, it touched on the role of the anthropologists on the commission, who had been willing to back such a sweeping condemnation of Andean indigenous life without engaging in what Theidon calls the ‘key components of anthropological methodologies – prolonged fieldwork and the embodied experiences of the people with whom we conduct our research’. The debate surrounding the report became the subject of Theidon’s PhD. Once the violence had subsided sufficiently for her to do her fieldwork, she based herself near Uchuraccay. ‘I was convinced the answers to my questions about violence and its legacies did not lie in the distant colonial past – violence “then” does not explain violence “now – or in primordial ethnic latencies”.’ Rather, she wanted to explore how villagers themselves understood the political violence of the Shining Path era and, after its defeat, how villagers who had chosen to support it were readmitted to their communities. She also spent two years with the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, work which gave her wider access across the province of Ayacucho. Between 2001 and 2003, the commission collected almost 17,000 testimonies. Theidon both helped gather them and directed research in ‘community mental health, reconciliation and reparations’.

Like its regional neighbours, Peru is profoundly divided between an impoverished indigenous population, based in the mountainous interior, and the inhabitants of the coastal lowlands, particularly Lima. A third of the population lives along the coast and, according to the World Bank, on average a citizen of Lima earns 21 times what a resident of the interior earns. As Theidon notes, Ayacucho was one of the poorest regions in Peru, with between 65 and 75 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. People told Theidon that before the war their towns were zonas olvidadas, forgotten zones. In Ayacucho and many nearby areas there was little or no government presence, allowing Shining Path to move easily into the vacuum. One weakness of Theidon’s book is that the movement’s ideology is never properly analysed, although it may be that there’s not a lot to analyse. What she says about its provenance is revealing, however. It took root in institutions in Ayacucho, including a secondary school in the ancient Inca administrative centre of Vilcashuamán and San Cristóbal National University in Huamanga, where Guzmán taught. Shining Path seems to have had a particularly strong attraction for schoolteachers, often the clever children of indigenous campesinos who, after receiving their degrees, went to teach in the shockingly impoverished countryside. In small villages, teachers were usually the only representatives of the state and had enormous influence.

Before it took up arms in 1980, Shining Path had proselytised in Ayacucho for more than a decade. Theidon interviewed a village leader who remembered these early visits, when militants would play football at festivals and promise that everyone would in the future be equal, that everyone would have a car, that there would be no more rich or poor. The villagers were told that agricultural products would be stored in warehouses and distributed to each according to his need. Later, Shining Path ran what it called ‘moralisation campaigns’, in which it focused on easy targets for punishment, including cattle rustlers, shopkeepers who overcharged customers, wife-beaters and adulterers. It also opened ‘popular schools’. ‘They had the books of Sendero, Mao, Lenin, Marxism,’ a village elder remembered. ‘I mean, there was no more normal education. They destroyed it.’ And with the schools arrived ‘juicios populares’: militants rounded up communal leaders and seemingly random villagers whose names were scrawled on the back of matchboxes. Many were publicly executed.

Shining Path’s class-based analysis appealed to many in the impoverished Indian towns but, according to Theidon, once it began to locate class enemies within the towns themselves, resistance began. One former member told Theidon he had joined in order to avoid being labelled a counter-revolutionary:

So I joined as a combatant, but I just wanted to escape. They just robbed. Straight out they told us we were going to go out and get clothes for free. They robbed transportistas who were headed for the jungle, and merchants. They told us we would finish all those people off and keep their things. I didn’t like this, there are so many burgueses – how were we going to finish them all off?

After 1983, when the army’s counterinsurgency campaign began, many villages made a Faustian pact with the military. The price was exceedingly high. The army began carrying out summary executions of anyone suspected of being sympathetic to Shining Path; there were disappearances and massacres. (It’s no surprise that the worst of these massacres – Lloqllepampa – was directed by a young officer trained at the School of the Americas in the United States.) There were many rapes. Theidon lists the choices available to women in garrison towns: being raped so as to avoid being labelled a terrorist; being raped in order to save your husband; being raped simply because you couldn’t defend yourself. Many women interviewed by Theidon remembered having to endure racial slurs (being called chuto nikurawanchik, a filthy uncultured person, for example) while they were being assaulted.

Indigenous victims of the violence call these years ‘the difficult time’, seeing it, according to Theidon, as a period of collective madness. It’s worth trying to investigate whether the violence really was something new, or whether Vargas Llosa was right. Theidon writes that there was a tradition in Uchuraccay of peleas, of ritual fights. These seem to have been all-out brawls – which often took place during village festivals (at which there would be a lot of drinking). They involved slingshots, rocks being thrown, and fighting until blood was drawn, but the participants seem to have left their disputes behind on the field of battle – and that may have been the point. Before Shining Path, virtually no one – according to Theidon – was murdered in the area. Long-standing disputes seem to have been settled by banishment.

Theidon discovered another, less visible form of retribution in indigenous villages, however. It involved the casting of spells to bring death, disease or misfortune. She argues that this practice wasn’t much used during the Shining Path years but that some of the qualities villagers had attributed to witches and other supernatural entities were transferred to Shining Path. Villagers saw the puna – the high Andean grasslands – as a place where dangerous, untamed forces dwelled, including the pishtaco, a creature with a vampire-like desire to suck the fat from victims, and jarjachas, condemned humans in animal form who could change their shape at will. Like the jarjachas, Shining Path seemed to live on the puna, and to sweep down out of nowhere. In the accounts collected by Theidon, the jarjacha-Senderistas were described as tall, pale-skinned and green-eyed – they sound a bit like conquistadors. They rode white horses, some remembered, horses that had big tails that could whip around and behead you. Villagers explained that one reason it took so long for the authorities to catch Guzmán was that he could turn himself into a rock, or a bird, or a river, while the police ‘only thought to look for a man’.

This view of the Senderistas as jarjacha may have sealed the fate of the journalists when they turned up unexpectedly in Uchuraccay. In December 1982, the Peruvian army had arrived in the nearby provincial centre of Huanta, commandeered the stadium there and set up a torture centre. In January 1983, a group of Senderistas arrived in Huaychao and began making demands. The villagers turned on them, killing seven, and quickly requested army protection. Other nearby towns watched closely and when Huaychao, protected by the army, successfully avoided Shining Path retaliation, other villages – among them Uchuraccay – followed suit. After a group of Senderistas arrived in Uchuraccay, first making unreasonable demands on locals, then threatening them, the townspeople turned on them and chased them back into the puna. At the same time they seized eight of their own young people who’d recently gone over to Shining Path and forced them to sign confessions claiming that they’d been duped. Into this charged situation came the eight journalists, off the puna. The villagers looked at them with their urban clothes, their sudden appearance as if on the wind, and concluded they were Senderistas, bent on retaliation. Rather than finding out for sure they decided to pre-empt danger, surrounding the newcomers and battering them to death.

After the war ended, Ayacucho experienced an invasion by well-meaning NGOs. Although Theidon collaborated with a number of them, she is caustic about what she calls ‘the trauma industry’. She writes of the ‘enormous market for … trauma experts deployed to postwar countries to detect symptoms of PTSD via the use of “culturally sensitive” questionnaires.’ Her complaint is that the trauma experts don’t listen to the people they set out to help and impose a set of values that have more to do with their own priorities than local needs. At times Theidon found the NGO workers explicitly racist. On one occasion, she went to Lima to meet the head of a prominent NGO who explained to her that the indigenous population had already forgotten the violence. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘we are capable of abstract thought. That’s why we have suffered so much. But they only think in a concrete way – they only think about their daily food and their animals. They don’t think beyond that. That’s why they haven’t suffered the way we have. They aren’t capable of it.’

There were also examples of a more subtle but more pervasive racism. At a meeting of the mental health team in Lima, Theidon gave a presentation in which she mentioned a variety of postwar afflictions she had documented in her interviews with indigenous Peruvians. These included, among others, what Quechua-speakers refer to as llakis, or painful thoughts affecting them both intellectually and emotionally; la teta asustada (‘the frightened breast’), whereby people believe slow-wittedness or even epilepsy can be transmitted to a baby; and susto, a condition of extreme fright. Her presentation was followed by an awkward silence. Eventually, a colleague told her that, with the exception of susto, no one had heard of any of these conditions. Theidon’s concern, as she puts it, is that when Western categories become ‘normative’, they have a tendency to reduce ‘other theories (generally called “beliefs and customs”) to little more than local deviations of a universal truth’.

Theidon found Quechua methods for dealing with the aftermath of violence in some ways more sophisticated than those pushed by the trauma experts. A number of the Ayacucho communities she worked with subscribed to a process known as pampachanakuy, a ritual setting aside of aspects of the past in which two parties negotiate an agreement, then metaphorically bury their differences. She contrasts this with what she considers another uncritically accepted bromide: ‘more truth = more healing = more reconciliation.’ Theidon characterises this as ‘the tyranny of total recall’ and contrasts it with the more nuanced Quechua approach, which she describes as ‘remembering to forget’.

One striking consequence of Shining Path’s defeat was the growth of evangelical religion. Before the violence, only 5 per cent of the population were evangelical Christians, but after peace was restored this rose to more than half. Evangelicals formed the backbone of the rondas campesinas, the paramilitaries who collaborated with the army and pursued their opponents with millennial fervour. The big loser was the previously dominant Catholic Church. Monseñor Juan Luis Cipriani, who became the archbishop of Ayacucho during the final years of the violence, was an Opus Dei member who posted a sign on the door of the archbishopric announcing ‘human rights complaints not accepted here.’ It tells you most of what you need to know about the Vatican’s recent priorities to learn that Cipriani is now archbishop of Lima.

As for the surviving Senderistas, some abandoned the mountains for Lima; others remained behind but became evangelicals. Still others rejoined their communities, but with a new ability to ‘critique poverty and marginality’. In general, however, Theidon reports that villagers find it hard to come to terms with what they have been through. One curandero tells her that ulcers are the most common affliction he is asked to treat. ‘Everyone has them,’ he says.