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.
By Charles Walker, UC Davis
Peru has been forever changed by the violence that swept its countryside during a civil war that began in 1980 and slowly ground to a halt in the 1990s after claiming nearly 70,000 lives. Kimberly Theidon has been studying the legacies of the violence. The fruit of that long study is a stunning new work of scholarship. Scholars of Peru, transitional justice, post-conflict societies, and medical anthropology will find much to admire in this book and will be forced to rethink some of the dominant paradigms in these fields. Of particular interest to scholars of transitional justice will be the sections dealing with how communities that largely rejected the Shining Path allowed some former rebels to return to or join their villages if they expressed regret, submitted to physical punishment, and participated in communal institutions like the rondas campesinas (village patrol groups). Though Peru held a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is in the “micropolitics of reconciliation” in small communities across rural Peru that the real work of reconciliation is being done. Intimate Enemies is at times a troubling read, both for its unflinching attention to suffering and its tendency to sow doubt over established wisdoms. The disquiet it provokes is tempered by Theidon’s excellent writing, her ability to allow the voices of the people she is writing about to come through loudly and clearly, and the sense of solidarity her brand of engaged, participatory anthropology embraces.
Human Rights Review, Jan. 2014, Rebecca Root.
For the full review:
As late as 1991, the Shining Path Maoist guerrilla movement had seemed to threaten the survival of the elected Peruvian government. The insurgency gained control of rural areas through a combination of persuasion and coercion, writes the anthropologist Kimberly Theidon in Intimate Enemies, a somber study of war’s aftermath. Mistrust and resentment still infect Peruvian society, yet there has been little violent score-settling in recent years. Still, given the psychic scars Theidon describes, her extremely valuable and moving account shows that the end of war does not necessarily bring anything resembling peace.
Excerpt from The Times Literary Supplement, January 2014, Roger Atwood
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.