Review of Intimate Enemies, from American Ethnologist

American Ethnologist, Volume 41 Number 1    February 2014
Intimate Enemies: Violence and Reconciliation in Peru. Kimberly Theidon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. 461 pp.
BARTHOLOMEW DEAN University of Kansas
Kimberly Theidon’s hauntingly graceful book yields incredible insight into the embodied experiences of Quechua-speaking Andean campesinos (peasants) who suffered disproportionally during Peru’s civil war pitting Maoist guerillas (Sendero Luminoso, Shining Path), the state’s armed forces, and ronderos (armed communal watch patrols) in a gruesome conflict claiming over 70,000 lives and displacing more than 600,000. Drawing from her work with the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (PTRC), NGO consultations, and her long-term ethnographic research in the war-ravaged pueblos (communities) of the Department of Ayacucho, Theidon sketches the dramatically violent transformations that transpired in the central Andean highlands from the late 1970s through the early 2000s.
Following Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Theidon urges those who work in conflict zones to serve the “role of committed witness” (p. 22). While Intimate Enemies is a painful rendition of social life in times of war, it is not merely a litany of brutal, apparently senseless acts of dehumanization and blood-spattered suffering. Instead, Theidon has penned a dolefully lilting text that carries messages encoded in vignettes and stories of endurance, reconciliation, and redemption—albeit articulated at times in the guise of what Theidon persuasively reckons is tantamount to a Faustian pact (p. 389). Punctuated by moments of delight, laughter, and selflessness, her account describes forms of “resilience” in the face of suffering because of structural or intimate acts of violence. This involved heroic attempts to reconstruct not only the physical ravages of war but also salve the intensely embodied mental wounds that linger in scarred memories, and the frightful efforts to remember to forget, particularly for those afflicted with llakis (suffering associated with disturbing recollections and “broken hearts”) or susto (soul loss).
Rejecting a “pornography of violence,” Intimate Enemies deftly conveys sensuously potent illocutionary acts— personal narratives of what transpired to those caught in the midst of festering violent conflicts that escalated into low-intensity warfare. Theidon interviewed a wide spectrum of people mired (wittingly and otherwise) in the conflict. The vast majority of comuneros (members of peasant communities) from Ayacucho lost menfolk. Subsequently, entire families were massacred, including women, and the most vulnerable of all, children and the elderly. Fields were razed, churches destroyed, and food stocks despoiled. Countless comuneros were forced to relocate into “nucleated” villages created as part of the Peruvian state’s counterinsurgency policy. Without livestock or access to adequate labor power, communal well-being suffered, malnutrition intensified, and, ultimately, the sense of caring and communitas became restricted during what local Quechua speakers refer to as sasachakuy tiempo (the difficult time). Theidon’s bitterly poignant “thick descriptions” transmit the seemingly ineffable tragedies embodied in the lives of those who suffered. Some fled to the inhospitable caves, while others migrated to distant destinations on the coast or to the selva (tropical Amazonian lowlands).
As a skilled listener and keen observer, Theidon reports on numerous social categories scantily treated in the ethnographic literature on war and postconflict studies of “times of transition.” This includes the elicitation and analysis of the life trajectories of evangelical pastors (such as the likes of Vidal Trujillano), of widows, of mothers lamenting the loss of their disappeared kith and kin, of rape victims, and of militant sympathizers (huk kuna) who were reluctantly allowed to return to their home communities if they repented. Yet those who did return found themselves often scapegoated from the solidarity—real or imagined—of the community (el pueblo).
Fully steeped in anthropological theory and seamlessly woven to interdisciplinary considerations of localized worlds of morality, Intimate Enemies interrogates key jurisprudential notions through the optic of traumatized Quechua speaking communities. By the 2000 fall of the Fujimori dictatorship, Andean communities began engaging with multiple, yet contradictory, local, national, and transnational agendas of dealing with postwar conflict. “Justice talk,” “memory projects,” “reconciliation,” and the confessional desires for Enlightenment-based “truths” all prompted a series of dialogues—and pointed silences—among a diverse set of stakeholders who had been involved in the war(s) in Ayacucho (comuneros; militants and sympathizers of Sendero Luminoso; members of the armed forces; ronderos; religious representatives— curanderos, evangelicals, and Catholics; NGOs; the PTRC; not to mention “victims,” “perpetrators,” and “beneficiaries”).
Theidon’s gut-wrenching account is remarkable for its inclusion of the “ambivalent” exchanges, stories, and observations among comuneros who were opposed, as well as supportive, of the various armed combatants during the fighting. Theidon imparts both narratives from villages that were largely resistive to Sendero Luminoso, such as the northern areas of Ayacucho, and those in the central–south, who were more sympathetic to Sendero Luminoso. In the north, many opposed Sendero Luminoso, viewing it as “foreign” threat. Some communities’ leaders appealed to the state to reassert civil order and the command of “law.” Soldiers were dispatched to Ayacucho to establish local bases for counterinsurgency measures, resulting in further militarization and abuses of local populations, including rape, torture, and extrajudicial killings.
Intimate Enemies is a foundational monograph in the study and implementation of transitional justice. It represents a finely textured series of ruminations on the inevitable contradictions of Occidentalist postconflict reconciliation efforts that implore victims who find comfort in silence to publically enunciate their stories of suffering to establish perpetrators. Written for the specialist, as well as advanced undergraduate and graduate student audiences, Theidon’s book is a benchmark study of violence and social suffering—and, perhaps equally, represents the insights and limitations of what anthropologists can glean through the examination of narrative voice. In the face of
grievous moral injuries and continued impunity, Theidon elucidates the limits of “secular forms of reckoning” (p. 100), especially for stigmatized victims seeking recompensatory or retributive justice rather than reconciliation. As Epictetus asserted, “control thy passions, lest they take vengeance on thee.” It is here that Theidon’s text advances one of its most critical points: reconciliation (the ability to coexist) is by no means equivalent to local notions of “justice” or to customary forms of dispute resolution. Exacerbated by kindling animosities, grinding poverty, and long-standing social inequities, the “hand of vengeance” remains thinly veiled in Peru. Without reconstituting a moral community through acknowledging the multiple sociocultural contours shaping overlapping ideas of justice, efforts at lasting reconciliation will remain elusive.

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