issue 321 - March 2000
On to a place of dark secrets and many changes...
It’s a study in charcoal, yellow and indigo. Black hills, blazing swathes of golden yellow grass, sky an unbelievably deep hue. We are nearly 4,000 metres high, way above the tree-line. The altitude sharpens all the contours, deepens all colours. The air is somehow both hot and cold at once.
This is a vibrant, hard terrain of craggy mountains and sudden gullies holding the odd narrow winding thread of silver, a river, way down below. As we keep climbing I’m thinking: how much further, how much higher – and why? What on earth induced people ever to think of settling in a place so remote, harsh and inhospitable? What strange beauty, what perversion! There is nothing giving, no soft little margin of natural generosity in this landscape. No leeway for error of any kind in the ferocious struggle for survival.
One version of history relates that the people of this area, known as Iquicha, are descendants of the ancient Pocras and Chancas, who resisted the empire-building Incas. Most were massacred in a genocidal campaign, but those who escaped retreated to extreme highlands like these where no-one would want to follow them. And that is where they have lived ever since, with no visitors – at least until the events of 1983.
We are driving in a small, temperamental Toyota truck, hired from a man called Tarzan in the cold mountain town of Tambo. For hours we have been clinging to the very edge of the mountainside, on a road so half-hearted it barely deserves to be called a track.
Suddenly, against the dark crags, a woman appears. Her skirt is scarlet red, her feet bare, and on her head a wide-brimmed dark grey hat – the typical garb and colours of Uchuraccay. She quickly scuttles down the mountainside and out of view. We drive on.
Then up in the distance, on the top of the hill, appears the most incongruous sight: a cluster of white buildings with red-tiled roofs. They are like villas, town houses, regimented to look like a housing estate. Is this some mirage? Some trick of the light? But no, the vision appears to hold.
And we wind our way towards it, past churned-up dark earth, the rich source of all life and pretty much all food. We may be above the maize line, above the barley line – but we are not above the potato line. The earth bears its rich yellow fruit, like gold; the indigenous crop of the Andes, with 240 different varieties.
Peasants are kneeling down, digging in with their hands, extracting from the earth its secrets. And the women carry them away in their strong, wide skirts.
Uchuraccay is a place of dark secrets. Just the name can still send shivers down the spines of Peruvian journalists. It was here in 1983 that eight reporters – seven from Lima – were stoned to death and their bodies grotesquely mutilated in a bizarre killing that sent shock-waves through Peruvian society.
It all began when an Army spokesperson announced that peasants in Huaychao, a community near Uchuraccay, had killed young Sendero Luminoso cadres who had previously executed local community leaders for refusing to co-operate with them. The peasants were at last turning against the subversives, said the Army.
The journalists, from leading centre and left papers, had their doubts and, unusually, set out to this remote area to try to establish the truth. It was risky, but they assumed there was safety in numbers.
They were wrong. The story put out by the authorities was that the reporters had been killed by peasants who mistook them for terrorists. An inquiry into the killings was launched, headed by internationally best-selling writer Mario Vargas Llosa. His conclusions basically supported the official line. The Army had told peasant communities that they could, and indeed should, kill anyone they suspected of being a Senderista.
But Vargas Llosa went further in trying to understand the culture of the place, of this community so remote and removed from the Peru he knew, the metropolitan, modern, reality of Lima. The state of the journalists’ bodies attracted morbid fascination: eyes gouged, bodies mutilated and buried face downwards ‘so that their souls could go straight to hell’. In this was seen evidence of the harsh nature of Andean culture, which Vargas Llosa dubbed ‘feudal’ and ‘archaic’. His conclusion was that all Peruvians should bear responsibility for what happened at Uchuraccay, for knowing so little of this other Peru, and for neglecting its development so badly.
His analysis was lyrical, thoughtful and persuasive. But not all were convinced by it. It did not convince those on the traditional left – nor most Ayacuchans. To them the killing had the hallmark of the Sinchis, an anti-terrorist police unit that had been in the area at around that time. The grotesque, exotic elements – the mutilations – were intended to point the finger at ‘superstitious’ peasants. Others thought that perhaps the peasants did do the killing, but under the orders of the Army.
What is certain is that, though two campesinos were eventually tried, convicted and imprisoned, no-one in the community has ever talked about what happened. The exact events of 26 January 1983 remain a mystery. But Uchuraccay was engraved on the map of Peruvian consciousness. It became a byword for the archaic and incomprehensible. A diabolical place, so ‘backward’, it was suggested, that the peasants would have mistaken cameras for guns.
The killings were just the start of the troubles for this 1,000-strong Andean community. In the following months they came under attack several times, from Sendero Luminoso, then the Army, then Sendero again and so on. Finally, threatened by another Sendero attack, the entire community upped and fled one night in 1984, leaving everything behind them. Their animals, their homes, their crops, everything.
When I visited Ayacucho the following year I considered trying to visit Uchuraccay. But there was no point: it had become a ghost place, and a place of many kinds of ghosts.
Jewel in the crown
Today Uchuraccay is quite another story. It’s a showpiece, the jewel in the crown of the Fujimori Government’s rural repopulation programme and the focus for non-governmental agencies. Of the latter the Christian evangelical charity World Vision has been the most consistent – about a third of the population are evangelicals.
Uchuraccay now has running water, a generator for electricity – though it’s been broken for the past six months – and, most important, a road link to the town of Tambo and therefore a market for its potatoes and other tubers. The usual crazy aid stories abound: the most famous being the donation of several computers, at a time when there was no know-ledge of how to use them – and no electricity either.
Today, in spite of all this, it still feels like a place of ghosts as we get out of the truck and head for what we assume is the centre of the village. This is the development we saw from afar – 50 or so new four-roomed concrete-and-tiled houses, set around a kind of town square. They seem all but deserted – most are boarded up.
What is going on?
Finding no sign of human life, we head for a building with a sign saying ‘Artisans Centre’. It has the look of a development project. ‘We’ consists of Edwin from the Peruvian agency CODEAC, Faustino Cisneros from its partner, Oxfam, the driver and two friends he’s picked up along the way. The centre is locked, but peeping through a crack in the door we can see there’s a loom inside. ‘Maybe they make hats with Uchuraccay written on them,’ jokes one of the men, ‘which no-one would dare to wear.’ That pretty much sums up the attitude.
Finally we spot a figure standing in the shade just outside one of the new houses. He’s a sad-looking man in his thirties who has probably been watching us. It turns out that he is the teniente governador (‘lieutenant governor’). But he can’t talk to us, he says. The community has a rule that they can only talk as a group to strangers. And the others aren’t around, he says. If we come back later, perhaps they will talk to us. It does not sound altogether hopeful.
On a hillside just above the village we find a couple of people to talk to. Well, there are two of them, but only one is talking. She’s called Esperanza and she’s not from Uchuraccay but from Huanta. She has walked here – a seven-hour trek – to visit relatives. She and her cousin are gathering animal shit and setting fire to it.
After a while their purpose becomes clear. Once the shit is dry and hot, small potatoes are thrust into it to cook. It will take about an hour and a half to cook them. If we come back later, we can have some, she says. It gradually dawns on me why Edwin and Cisneros were yesterday so fastidiously peeling the potatoes they ate, while I happily gobbled mine, skin and all. I feel a touch unwell.
A little way off are traditional Andean homesteads, stone buildings with thatched roofs, low doorways and no windows, surrounded by plenty of grazing land for small animals. We pass one such plot and find that there is somebody at home. It’s an old woman, who informs us that we should stay away because she is sick.
The sad lieutenant
With a mounting sense of futility I head back to the compound of new white houses. Amazingly we find a woman who not only lives in one of these but is prepared to talk to us. More than this, she shows us around her house. So friendly is she I even begin to wonder whether she might be an impostor, a person from elsewhere passing herself off as being from Uchuraccay.
‘It’s a nice house,’ says our hostess, Dina Figeroa Gavelan, ‘but it’s so cold; the ceilings are so high. At night the floors are like blocks of ice.’
She shows us the four rooms. Three are used for storing potatoes. The fourth, the smallest, has bedding on the floor, a radio on the window sill and plastic sheeting covering the windows. This is where the family sleep, all huddled together for warmth. In the backyard there is a tiny, stonewalled, earth-floor, traditional hut, where she says she does the cooking. It’s much more cosy – homely, warm and practical.
Dina left ‘during the problems’ in 1983 and took refuge in the city of Huanta. She came back seven years ago, as soon as she could, because it’s ‘more free’ than in the city. But that’s about as much as I can get out of her.
We head back to the house of the sad lieutenant. He is still there – and the other authorities still aren’t. They can’t come, he says. We entreat him to speak to us. We just want to know a bit about the community. He is nervous and uncomfortable. But eventually he relents.
His name is Rufino Figeroa Morales, aged 37. He left Uchuraccay in 1984. There were several attacks on the community. About 300 people died in total, he says. That’s about a third of its population. He himself lost seven relatives – including his parents.
‘We had no way of defending ourselves. No firearms. In 1984, we all fled leaving everything.’ There followed many unsettled years, moving around, taking refuge in different parts. His family did not come back until six years ago as part of the Government’s rural repopulation plan.
Around 600,000 people were internally displaced between 1980 and 1993. According to the Platform for the Displaced, a leading Peruvian agency in the field, around 68,000 have returned, but not all these have stayed. According to spokesperson Ana María Rebaza: ‘There are a great many who now live with one leg in the city, one in the country.’
Returnees have often found it hard to pick up the threads of rural life again; their lives had changed radically, their family and support networks were broken. Many communities did not receive the level of support they were promised. Then, of course, there were those who simply took advantage of what was on offer in the countryside – and then went back to the cities.
All in all, repopulation has created its share of conflicts, tensions and rivalries. Some villagers feel returnees should either go or stay. Meanwhile communities which stayed put throughout the troubles complain of official discrimination against them – first, because they have received little or no aid, and second, because it is often wrongly assumed that if they did not flee it must mean they collaborated with the terrorists.
There’s no doubt that Uchuraccay has been privileged – unfairly, its neglected neighbours would argue. Its ronderos have also been allowed to keep their weapons. As Rufino poses for a photo with his Winchester, one of the men urges: ‘Come on, smile! Imagine she’s your fiancée!’ and he almost smiles. But soon the sadness creeps back over his face again and settles back into its customary furrows.
As we leave Rufino I’m thinking about the sadness of Uchuraccay, about how long it will take to heal. Then I come across Isidora Soto Chocce and Felix Ccentre Llancc. They are aged 17 and 19 respectively and dressed up with flowers, ribbons and brightly coloured clothes. They are a sweet pair, clearly head-over-heels in love with each other. When I ask if they have any children, she looks at him, giggles and says: ‘Not yet!’
They came too late for one of the new white houses, they say. Theirs is a stone-and-thatch homestead they built themselves. They were tiny when they left Uchuraccay and don’t remember anything about that time. Having spent their refugee years in Tambo, they returned six years ago. Why did they come back?
‘We were born here. It’s our place,’ says Felix.
And do they like it?
‘Oh yes,’ says Isidora. ‘Here we can sow and raise our animals in freedom. It’s not like living in a city. It’s much better here.’ They indicate the vast expanses.
Here’s the hope of Uchuraccay, I find myself thinking. Young peasants who have come back because this is their place. They know town life, they know rural life, and they are making an informed choice.
We know nothing
As we leave Uchuraccay we pass the vestiges of the old village. Near the spot where the journalists died a group of women is washing clothes in the river. True to form they greet us with: ‘We know nothing.’
Back at the Hostal Santa Rosa in Ayacucho City I examine the photo of the eight journalists hanging in reception. They were staying here before setting out on that fateful day.
I remember that when I was here in 1985 their relatives were living in the hotel while attending the long court case into the killings. Also staying was the judge in the case, Dr Ventura Huayhua. I recall an extraordinary conversation with him when he told me he was convinced that the armed forces were engaged in a cover-up to make the killing look as if it had been done by the peasants. He had had a similar conversation with a reporter from the Spanish daily El País a few days earlier. Within days Judge Ventura was pulled off the case.
What happened to him? He’s not in Ayacucho any more, and no-one seems to know what has become of him. Like so many, he seems to have slipped into silence.
Another is Zosimar Roca, the human-rights lawyer I visited in Ayacucho City in 1985. His office had just been bombed by the Republican Guard. He was acting as a defence lawyer for the Uchuraccay peasants accused of killing the journalists. He left Ayacucho suddenly the same year, apparently for exile in Nicaragua.
Meanwhile those eventually convicted of the killing have died, carrying God-only-knows-what secrets to their graves.
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