Violence and Reconciliation in Peru
UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA PRESS PHILADELPHIA Copyright © 2012 University of Pennsylvania Press
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The brightly colored speck in the distance kept coming closer without increasing much in size. I stood still with a large sack of kindling slung over my shoulder, not certain who it was. It was still dusk, so I was less frightened than curious. People had assured me the guerrillas only walked at night, as did the other frightening creatures I had been warned about. There were the jarjachas — human beings who had assumed the form of llamas as divine punishment for incest. There were the pishtacos — beings that suck the body fat out of the poor people who cross their paths. There were also the condenados — the condemned dead who are sentenced to an afterlife of wandering the earth and never finding peace. All of these beings derive pleasure from inflicting their vengeance on the living. But it was still dusk. I just wanted to know who the speck in the distance was.
I finally heard a voice call out, but the wind carried the words upward to the peaks of the mountains. I dropped down to the dirt highway and began calling out my own greeting. Finally an elderly man came into focus. He wore threadbare pants and a green wool sweater, and was stooping beneath the weight of a brightly colored blanket brimming with wood. Standing as upright as his heavy load would allow him, this tiny man pushed back his hat and looked straight up at me: “Gringacha — little gringa — where is your husband?” And so I met don Jesus Romero, an altogether different sort of creature to be wary of on isolated paths.
Don Jesus was also headed to Carhuahurán, so we walked back home together. It was the time of day when cooking fires sent smoke curls up from the roofs of the houses, and animals crowded into their corrals for the night. The smoke curls were a prelude to intimate evening hours, when stories from that day or years past were told as families gathered around blackened cooking pots.
Efraín, my research assistant, already had our fire going by the time we arrived. I invited don Jesus to come in for a cup of coffee and a chapla — round wheat bread I had brought with me from the city a few days earlier. I slathered a chapla with butter and strawberry jam, instantly making me someone worth visiting on a regular basis.
Don Jesus began by telling us he was the oldest person we would ever meet — he was a hundred years old. His cousin Domingo Santiago would later assure me that Jesus had lied — he was only eighty-three and it was Domingo who was the oldest person we would meet because he was eighty-seven. When I asked Jesus one day about the discrepancy, he thought for a bit before distracting me with the obvious: “Gringacha, I’m very charming.”
That first afternoon don Jesus began talking about el tiempo de los abuelos — the time of the grandparents. “But that was before. Traditions change because times change. Before, we never raised the flag like we do now. This is recent, just since the terrorists appeared. In el tiempo de los abuelos, we didn’t even have a flag.”
“Why do they raise the flag now?” I asked.
“We have laws now, laws to civilize us. To make us understand each other.”
“And before, how was it then — weren’t there laws?”
“Yeah. But everything changed.”
“Changed how, don Jesus? When?”
“When the violence appeared. Before, there were laws. Before, it was forbidden to kill,” he replied, wiping some jam from his face with his scratchy green sleeve.
“They didn’t kill before?”
“No, it was forbidden — only with thieves who came to steal animals. But the violence appeared and people began to kill. People were dying like dogs, there was no controlling it. Like dogs people were dying and there wasn’t any law.”
“And now?” prompted Efraín.
“Now is another time. In our assemblies, in the Mother’s Clubs — everything is changing again. It’s against the law to kill now, even to attack someone. It’s forbidden. Everything is changing. Time changes.”
“Was there a time before el tiempo de los abuelos?” I asked.
Don Jesus nodded. “It was el tiempo eterno — time eternal. The people were different then.”
“They weren’t like us?” I asked.
“No, they were different. We’re from el tiempo de Dios Hijo — the time of the Son of God.”
“And the people who lived before, did they disappear?”
“Of course. We come after them.”
“Did the people from el tiempo eterno live here?”
“Yeah. Their houses are up there,” pointing toward the hills above Carhuahurán. “We’ve seen their houses.”
“Did they have a name?”
He nodded. “The gentiles. They were envidiosos — envious. They disappeared in the rain of fire. Then it was el tiempo de Dios Hijo. That ended in the flood.”
“So there have been two times?”
“Yes. There have been two judgments.”
“Will there be another?”
“Oh yes. Some people say it will happen soon. We’ll end in flames.”
Don Jesus finally stood up, letting us know it was time for him to head home. I looked outside and saw how dark it was. “So you aren’t afraid of the dark?” I wondered out loud. “Jarjachas, condenados……”
He shook his head. “That was before. That changed when the violence appeared. The condemned disappeared — they stopped walking. When the violence appeared, it was the time of the living damned.” He lifted his blanket full of wood onto his shoulders and tied the ends tight around his chest. “We weren’t afraid of the condenados anymore. We were terrified of our prójimos — terrified of our neighbors, of our brothers.”
I shut the door behind don Jesus that night, but our conversation opened many others as I attempted to answer the deceptively simple questions that had stayed with me since my first visit to Peru in 1987. I was an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Cruz. With a small grant from the chancellor’s fund, I headed to Peru in part to research Shining Path, the guerrilla organization that had launched its war on the Peruvian state seven years earlier. I squeaked in just months before the university shut down its study abroad program there, concerned about the safety of students amidst the political violence that convulsed the country. I did not attempt to visit Ayacucho, the region Abimael Guzmán — founder of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) — called the “cradle” of the revolution.[i] The guerrillas espoused a fervent anti-imperialist ideology, and the United States was on their list of enemies. Besides, by 1987 the violence extended well beyond the highlands of Ayacucho, and soon nearly half the population lived under a state of emergency, subject to the control and caprice of the Peruvian armed forces.
It was a time of rampant inflation, which led to long lines for basic necessities and to the hoarding of groceries on the shelves of the small corner stores that dotted any given neighborhood. With my host family in Pueblo Libre, a barrio in Lima, we grew accustomed to the water rationing the government implemented in an effort to make water available to the rapidly growing squatter settlements that ringed the capital city, becoming home to the tens of thousands of people who were internally displaced by the armed conflict. The rationing set us scrambling to fill all available pots and pans during the two or three hours a day that the pipes creaked and the water ran. We grew tensely accustomed to a restricted range of movement as curfews and black outs became a common feature of daily life. Mama Clara warned us not to roam too far from the house in case the guerrillas bombed an electrical tower and we found ourselves stranded on a distant street in the pitch black of a Lima night.
Somehow the omnipresent soldiers stationed in the streets and scattered across the rooftops did not alleviate our fears. With their black woolen ski masks and machine guns, we thought they were just as frightening as the tanks that rolled through the streets or the guerrillas who sprayed their revolutionary graffiti in vivid red across random walls.
This was Peruvians killing Peruvians, some in army uniforms, others in guerrilla attire, and many more in the clothes they wore everyday when they planted fields, waved to the neighbors, walked their children to school, or brought their animals into the safe harbor of a family’s corral. Some deceptively simple questions stayed with me across the years. How do people commit acts of lethal violence against individuals with whom they have lived for years? How can family members and neighbors become enemies that one is willing to track down and kill? But it was not just the violence that gave rise to questions. More was at stake here. There was no invading army that would gather up weapons and return to some distant land. Not this war. When the killing stopped, former enemies would be left living side by side. What would happen then?
It is common these days to hear the term “new wars,” used to contrast contemporary armed conflicts with conventional warfare and the battlefield strategies with which two or more nation-states trained their armies and engaged in combat.[ii] These “new wars” are more likely to be civil wars fought with guerrilla tactics and counter-insurgency responses, and the frontlines blur into the home front as civilians frequently bear the brunt of the violence.
One particularity of civil wars is that foreign armies do not wage the attacks. Frequently the enemy is a son-in-law, a godfather, an old schoolmate, or the community that lies just across the valley. The forms of violence suffered and practiced matter greatly, and influence the reconstruction process when the fighting subsides. The fratricidal nature of Peru’s internal armed conflict means that ex-Senderistas, current sympathizers, widows, orphans, rape survivors, and army veterans live side-by-side. This is a volatile social world. It is a mixture of victims, perpetrators, witnesses, beneficiaries — and that sizeable segment of the population that blurs the categories, inhabiting what Primo Levi called the grey zone of half tints and moral complexity.[iii] The charged social landscape of the present reflects the damage done by a recent past in which people saw just what they and their neighbors could do.
I returned to Peru in 1995 in hopes of answering those deceptively simple questions. I headed to Ayacucho, the region of the country that bore the greatest loss of life and infrastructure during the internal armed conflict. I began working with Quechua-speaking communities to explore how people reconstruct individual lives and collective existence in the aftermath of war. I studied the process of social reconstruction — what some have deemed social repair.[iv] Social repair involves much more than laying down weapons, reviving economies, or rebuilding infrastructure: it also consists of reconstructing the social ruins that are among the most tenacious legacies of war. My years of research have convinced me that the theories and practices Peruvians have elaborated about political violence and its effects — about social life and their struggles to rebuild it — are relevant in many other contexts in which people strive to reinvent community amid landscapes steeped in blood and memory, fully aware of the danger human beings pose to one another.
[i] Abimael Guzmán, the founder of Shining Path, stated that “Ayacucho is the cradle” of the guerrilla organization during an interview with the PTRC (TRC 2003: vol. 1, page 79).
[ii] A key theorists of the “new wars” is Mary Kaldor 1999.