Each bounce on the gravel road knocked my neighbour and I together like billiard balls, the driver rocketing at alarming speed around sharp corners with steep drops at their sides. We passed tiny adobe homes with thatched roofs and livestock out front; neat squares of farmland tucked into the fierce folds of the Andes. The clouds hung low over purple peaks.
I was thinking of the opening scene of La Teta Asustada. An old indigenous Peruvian woman, face deeply wrinkled, eyes closed as she leans back against a pillow, sings in a high, reedy voice. The Quechuan lyrics sound hauntingly beautiful, but the Spanish subtitles below them are not.
She sings of her gang rape at the hands of Peruvian soldiers years earlier. Of being forced to eat her dead husband’s penis. Of the trauma transmitted to her unborn child.
“I’ve never been. My parents are afraid of Ayacucho, because of the terrorism.” Nobody seemed to know how long the bus trip was or how the roads were or how I would go about getting there. A few were horrified to learn I was planning to go alone.
My friend Gabriel sat me down for a lecture. I was to be very careful about who I talked to, what I asked. “Get yourself to a nice hostel,” he told me, “and ask the señora. Don’t talk to the men. Don’t talk to anyone on the street. These are recent wounds, people won’t like talking about it. Ooof. You’re going to hear some terrible things.”
Abimael Guzmán’s Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), an orthodox Marxist organisation, declared the beginning of the armed struggle against the existing political system in 1980, and the besieged government reacted at first rather ineptly, and later, brutally. The seeds sown by what had seemed, in the late 70s, to be an increasingly irrelevant and powerless leftist group, grew into a complex and bloody war, exacerbated by dehumanisation on all sides.
Sendero, in their millennial quest for a Marxist utopia, saw the “masses” as a tool to be wielded, and the concept of human rights as yet another instrument of the existing, deeply flawed capitalist order. The only rights that mattered were those of classes, and individual lives were not only an acceptable but also a necessary cost.
Meanwhile, certain influential members of the government and Armed Forces were swayed by fear, ignorance or racism to react forcefully against the highland, indigenous peasants. This section of Peruvian society has historically been either ignored or actively discriminated against by the highly centralised, urban-based Peruvian government. Counterterrorism operations were carried out in these regions with little or no discrimination between Sendero supporters (genuine or coerced) and innocents.
And as the war progressed, old grudges between highland communities were increasingly militarised, narco-traffickers were drawn in, and another leftist terrorist group, the MRTA, began operations against both Sendero and the government.
Ayacucho was Sendero’s heartland, and the place where it all began. Chuschi, 110 km to the south of the regional capital, was the scene of the first battle. On May 17, 1980, a group of five senderistas attacked the local electoral registry office, burning the electoral records. It was the day before the first democratic elections after twelve years of military dictatorship. By 1982, the terrorist organisation had taken effective control of the entire region.
Their leader, the charismatic and egotistic Abimael Guzmán – philosopher, lawyer, terrorist – was not captured until 1992, and the violence, widespread corruption, and massive abuses of human rights took a further eight years to peter out.
I arrived in Ayacucho in pouring rain. Water flooded down streets, pooled in potholes, streamed off the baseball caps worn by the crowd of taxis drivers at the bus door. There was no messing around in this rain; I negotiated the fare and we set off through hilly streets and a mess of road work, mototaxis, pedestrians and street vendors.
Hotel Crillonesa did, indeed, come with a señora, of indeterminate age, brown eyes soft and youthful in her wrinkled face. I checked in, dropped my bags in the room, and then greeted her at the counter and asked if there was a branch of my bank in town. She leaned across the wooden countertop, squeezed my hand tight in both of hers, and apologised with intensity for not knowing.
I smiled, squeezed her hand back. Don’t worry, I told her. It’s nothing very important.
I walked out into the rain, and knew that, lacking the time to gain her trust and friendship, I would never have the courage to ask that woman to describe to me the horrors of the city’s past.
The next morning the rain had gone, a strong Andean sun shining in its wake, baking the last of the moisture from the sidewalks. At 8 am the local market was just beginning to wake up, and I bought a newspaper and settled onto a bench to read.
Student elections are taken more seriously here than at home; a major local article in Panorama described protests the day before during elections in the Universidad Nacional de San Cristóbal de Huamanga.
“These are deeds which remind us of the times of political violence in Ayacucho,” the article ended ominously.
Sendero found fertile ground amongst a generation of Ayacuchan university students that, with the reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, were generally the first of their families to have access to secondary and superior education. The increased expectations that these opportunities brought were not, however, matched by improved economic or employment prospects. Here, in a remote regional university tucked well away from the gaze of the government, Sendero found its first converts amongst the frustrated and angry student body.
I got up, wandered unfamiliar streets, got lost, passed a local food market. A uniformed policeman was suddenly at my side: Where was I from? My name? Shall we have a coffee?
He steered me into a local bar – corrugated iron roof, plastic chairs, concrete floor. Coffee had suddenly turned into 10 a.m. beers.
José was from Lima. He had been sent to Ayacucho nine months previously, as reinforcement for the local police during an agriculturalist strike that had turned nasty. Two of the strikers had been killed, allegedly by police, and the rest had descended on the local station with gas bombs. Back then, José had unpacked his bags in the same Hotel Crillonesa I was staying in as the riots raged a few blocks down. The assignment had turned semi-permanent, and he would see out a full year there before his next posting.
“Is that usual? To move around so much?”
“Sí, sí.” I was told. “Por el narcotráfico.” Moving police officers around on a yearly basis is meant to stop them from developing close ties with local narcos; it’s one small and – I imagine – not terribly effective measure against corruption.
José made a dismissive gesture. “They’re mostly with the narcos now. It was bad, for a while, but it’s safe and calm here now. The last ambush of a police patrol was six months ago, up north.”
He had started in the police in 1980, the same year Sendero had unleashed their ideological war on the country. I tried gently, nervously, to keep the conversation on the terrorists, and he determinedly kept steering it away. When we finished the second large bottle of Brahma I made my excuses and left.
The presumed alliance between Sendero and the narcotraficantes was driving government policy long before they joined forces in reality. It was also commonly assumed foreign forces – Cuban, Venezuelan, or Colombian – were driving the insurrection. The civil government, somewhat naïvely, was driven by a sense of democratic hopefulness, of a new beginning. Belaunde, the first civil president in twelve years, an engineer and builder with grand plans for new infrastructure, could not believe any Peruvian would wish to blow up bridges, railway lines, buildings.
But Guzmán, the charismatic leader of the organisation, born in Arequipa, in the south of Peru, wanted precisely that, and the seeds of political and social upheaval had already been sown. While many leftist parties entered parliament, and were in fact gathering political clout and popular support, in many areas Sendero was also gaining a foothold, strengthened by existing social and economic divisions. In the latter years of the military government, Sendero had turned away from the strikes and marches organised by other leftist organisations, and had focused on the countryside of Ayacucho. Students and militants of the group lived in indigenous communities, took on agricultural work, married villagers, and preached politics.
In the wake of agrarian reforms, which had failed to materially improve the conditions of many, and of a subsistence crisis that had brought the region to its knees, Sendero was a welcome substitute to an uncaring, Lima-based government.
“There was so much blood.” Ernesto gestured around the plaza we were sitting in. “You could walk across here and just be shot. Worse for the police, the government types. Two kids,” he indicated height at his side, and they wouldn’t have cleared my shoulders, “shot an official just up there,” pointing to a side street. “Then they just disappeared into the streets.”
He was short and dark and somewhere in his forties; he had waited almost half an hour, sitting at the next park bench over from me, to strike up a conversation. “What heat, no?”
We were sitting in a pretty little plaza: white fences around patches of green grass; small, graceful trees; children playing; boot polishers doing their thing. A church, slightly smaller than usual size, like everything in this corner of town, in front of us. El Templo de Santo Domingo.
“There were bombs every day. It was horrible. It all started here and spread through the entire country,” he spread his arms wide, taking in the quaint little square, the children playing, the mothers and grandmothers and shoe-shiners. “Bombs, bombs… and blood.”
Unleashing his ideological war, Abimael Guzmán had no doubt the current social and political order in Peru served only to protect the interests of the wealthy elite. This system could not be used to change itself; revolution could not come from within. The only solution was to destroy the existing political system through armed struggle, establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat.
And so, quoting Shakespeare and Mao and Irving, writing articles, exhorting his party with fiery rhetoric, he introduced “the quota”. A small, inexperienced army such as Sendero could only hope to defeat the professional Armed Forces of Peru if they unleashed such a wave of terror and blood and fear that the government broke under the sheer inhumanity of it all. Civilian blood, police blood, army blood, Sendero blood. Until the quota was filled. If it ever could be.
The young foot-soldiers of Sendero were whipped into a suicidal blood thirst. Dying for the party became the highest honour.
But the senderistas were not the only ones spilling blood. Successful terrorist campaigns rely on an oppressive reaction by the government, further dividing the country, inciting more violence, and driving more support to the terrorist cause. The case of Sendero was no exception and was exacerbated by the racial divides already endemic in Peru. The indigenous campesinos in the sierra were looked down on by the elites, the city-dwellers, the European-descendents of Lima. This attitude of disdain, transmitted to the Armed Forces, led to increasing transgressions of human rights, as the mancha india (Indian stain) of Peru was caught between the army and the senderistas. Three out of every four of the victims was a Quechan speaking, highland peasant.
Just as Sendero had planned, December 30, 1982, the government of Belaunde declared a state of emergency in the region of Ayacucho. This marked the beginning of the most intense period of the war: in a strategy of massive and indiscriminate repression, of forced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture, both sides tried to teach the “masses” the costs of supporting the other.
I bought some fruit for the bus, spent a final half hour sitting in the Plaza de Sucre. There’s a statue in the centre of Antonio José de Sucre, famed General in the independence movement of South America, friend and ally of Bolívar. Around his mounted figure are the shields of the nations that fought together for the liberation of the continent from its colonisers, and a phrase: Ayacucho, Cradle of American Liberty.
It was here the decisive battle was fought. Here that, in 1824, the tide was finally turned in favor of the rebels.
The plaza is wide, gracious, surrounded by elegant colonial buildings. The sun was fierce, even in the late afternoon, and most people had retreated to the shade. I heard a cheerful march – drums and trumpets raised loud – and sought out the side-street it was coming from. I turned the corner to see a funeral procession of some 80 people approaching me, pall-bearers sweating in the sun under the weight of a white coffin strewn with pastel-coloured flowers.
The trumpets raised their joyful sound and taxis honked and as the procession turned onto the square, I was reminded of a Carleton Beals quote from Fire in the Andes:
“Ayacucho seems more closely tied to death than life … It has always been a place of battle and death. Revolutions begin in Arequipa – an old Peruvian saying goes – but when they reach Ayacucho they are serious matters.”
The worst, the most horrific, had been saved for Chungui. A district in the Ayacuchan province of La Mar, squeezed dry between Sendero and the Armed Forces, Chungui suffered what has been recognised by the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation as the most cruel and devastating violence of the war.
Edilberto Jiménez, an Ayacuchan artist, has captured the horror in sketches and retablos – carved wooden figures inside a stage-like box. His drawings, etched in black and white, developed during interviews with the villagers of Chungui in 1996, capture moments of violence and pain with a startling and touching simplicity. From the first, proselytising visits of Sendero, through forced removals to the hills where they lived in caves and watched their children starve, to the arrival of the Armed Forces.
“You’ll tell us everything if you want to live,” threatened a soldier, and cut off the ear of a local peasant, forcing him to eat it. Peasants were forced to kill dogs, wash their faces in the blood, eat their innards.
Women were raped, by senderistas and militares alike. Children were indoctrinated by the terrorists, were orphaned. Sickness was rife; death was everywhere.
Ayacucho seems a long time ago; its plazas exist more to me in photos than in three-dimensional memory, and the clear, frank horror of Ernesto’s memories are scrawled phrases in a worn-out notebook. I’ve devoured books on Sendero, revisited notes from a university course on political violence.
And yet I understand it less than when that reckless, ramshackle bus arrived in Ayacucho in the pouring rain.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]