issue 321 - March 2000
leave his land, his community, animals... But what
happened to them? Did they escape the bloodbath?
And did he? The search moves to the high Andes.
Patawasi’s on my mind. It has been for some years. My thoughts have often gone back to an extraordinary trip to this remote highland community.
In 1985 this was a no-go area, long abandoned by traders, priests, teachers, aid workers or any other kind of professionals who might venture there. Danger could come from any side. From Sendero, from the Army, or from peasants with every reason to be afraid of strangers.
My trip to Patawasi back then was only possible because at the offices of Co-operación Popular, a government development agency, were a couple of oddballs prepared to carry on working in the region. Walter Ascarza and his assistant Dionisio were to go up to Patawasi the next day and they agreed to take me with them. We took a truck as far as we could, then waited by the river for two villagers who were coming down from Patawasi with horses to take us five hours up into the highlands.
Sendero Luminoso fighters had been active in the area and the Army had advised Patawasi to form a ronda campesina or peasant patrol to defend itself against the subversives. They did not have much choice. To refuse would have aroused suspicion of complicity with the guerrillas, with even worse possible consequences.
Night had fallen by the time we arrived in Patawasi, a small collection of buildings scattered around a main square with a church. The place seemed deserted. The women and children had taken refuge in one house. The men, meanwhile, had taken up guard on the higher ground around the village, armed, pathetically, with wooden poles to defend themselves against guerrillas with Kalashnikovs.
We were taken into the house of one highlander, a young man with incredibly long dark lashes called Felix Lima Lopez. He fed us soup with bits of tough old llama meat in it before we settled down for a night of deep sleep between llama skins.
In the morning I was able to see just how untouched by any sign of modernity this place seemed to be. Five hours on horseback seemed to have transported us five centuries. Or so it felt.
I have an abiding memory of Felix climbing through the low-framed mountain hut door at dawn, bearing beakers of a steaming brew, and the engineer Walter exclaiming: ‘Look at this man. He is himself! Everything he is wearing was made here. Everything he eats was grown here. He is autonomous, self-sufficient. He is entirely himself.’
Felix had, for a short while, left the perils of the highlands and tried urban life. But he hated it. ‘I missed my land. I missed my community. I missed my animals,’ he explained.
As I heard of the increasingly ferocious uncoiling of Peru’s violence in the years that followed I often wondered what had happened to Felix and campesinos like him.
So it’s with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I now express my wish to revisit Patawasi.
‘Which one?’ asks Lucy, an Ayacucho Oxfam worker.
Ah! This is not a problem I had envisaged. I should have. ‘Patawasi’ is Quechua for ‘house on the hill’ and there must be a fair few Andean settlements of that name.
‘There are two that I know of,’ says Lucy. ‘One I know very well. It’s near Vilcashuaman. It’s a terrible place.’
‘It’s fallen to pieces.’
My heart sinks.
‘It was badly battered. By both sides. It’s fallen apart morally. Problems with violence, alcoholism, theft, incest…’
‘And the other one?’
‘Is in Vinchos... I don’t know that one.’
We go back to my hotel and I show her old black-and-white photos I have of Patawasi… She looks at them carefully. ‘No, there aren’t rocks like these in the one near Vilcashuaman,’ she says, to my relief. ‘I think it’s the one in Vinchos you want.’
I’m hoping she’s right as I set off at 5.00am with Oxfam worker Faustino Cisneros, a portly, middle-aged man dressed in a baby-blue pullover.
Fujimori’s road-building campaign means the road that ended in the small town of Vinchos now stretches beyond, taking us to within two hours’ walk – or rather climb – of Patawasi.
'Latrines!' declaims Cisneros. Latrines?
One, it seems, for every field.
After a few hours on the road, the jeep winds down a valley towards the little town of Paqcci, its corrugated roofs gleaming in the sun. I notice that the hills are dotted with strange little blue kiosks, with bright orange roofs. They are all the same and all look quite surreal, as though they had been air-dropped from another world.
‘Latrines!’ declaims Cisneros. ‘Latrines.’ One, it seems, for every house. No. More than that. One it seems for each field! Maybe, even, one for each person. It’s as though someone in a position of power has declared: ‘Let there be latrines’ and lo and behold… ‘It’s a Government programme,’ Cisneros elucidates.
Do people use them for the purpose for which they were intended? I ask.
He does not know, but a Dutch health worker I later ask retorts: ‘Of course not! Such nice little houses! To use for that? No, people use them for storing onions!’
After Paqcci, we ascend through an extraordinary landscape of crags and stones that seem chiselled and fashioned by hand, like nature’s most wonderful sculptures. I remember this vividly from my previous visit. This is definitely the right Patawasi. The scene is so vast and we so tiny on it, our human lives seem like an irrelevant speck on the surface of eternity.
Then the landscape changes into craggy whiteness as we wind up another bit of mountainside. Coming down the narrow single track towards us is a sudden, gleeful cascade of people dressed in brilliant pinks and greens and blues, galloping bareback on their horses. There are tiny kids, three to a horse, deftly controlling their mounts. We stop and ask a group of riders where they are going. ‘To Paqcci, for a fiesta!’ they reply. And where have they come from. ‘Patawasi,’ shouts one, to my delight, as he gallops and clatters on down the twisting white mountain road.
Soon the road gives out. Cisneros and I continue on foot. The pathway takes us along gurgling streams and terraces of maize. Small Andean pigeons take off at our approach. There’s a small bridge, spanking new with orange railings. Last time I was here we had to swim across the swollen rivers on horseback. But, after decades of official neglect that created a vacuum easily filled by Sendero Luminoso, the Govern-ment has been making its visible mark on the countryside. Not for nothing does Fujimori, a former rector of the Agrarian University, use a tractor as his election icon.
As we near our destination, though, the signs of government intervention disappear. Some people are making thatch in a nearby field. We head towards them. Eventually they look up, cautiously. Cisneros explains what we are doing here. I show them the old black-and-white photos I took 15 years ago.
The younger man, 19-year-old Rosalino Ventura Fernandez, is fascinated by them, especially one of a small boy with a hoe. ‘Is it you?’ I hazard, on the off-chance. He seems about the right age. But he shakes his head. ‘Is it someone you know, perhaps?’ Again he shakes his head but keeps looking.
How would he know? I wonder. In a place without photography how would one know what one had looked like aged five or seven?
Where is Felix?
Rosalino and his father Onorator direct us further up the hill to the main settlement of Patawasi. Nothing seems to have changed. It all looks caught in a time warp. The old stone one-roomed huts with their thatched roofs and tiny doorways. The sticks that make the football goals. The goats, llamas and crops of maize and potatoes. There’s still no sign of electricity, no generator, no piped water.
A man comes out of one of the stone huts. We say we are looking for Felix. The man nods, introduces himself as Pedro Fernandez Quiquaña and invites us into his house. It turns out to be next door to the one I slept in all those years ago.
Inside the hut two women, three men and three children are having a midday meal. I look around. Everything is exactly as I remember: the earth floor, the rope and horse harnesses dangling from the beams above, along with blankets and ponchos. Even the smoky fire on which cooking is done in the corner.
One of the men turns out to be Felix’s nephew Nativo. Felix himself is away for a few days, selling some of his llamas. So he is still alive; he did stay!
‘Oh yes,’ Nativo replies. ‘He’s got a good herd too.’
They insist on sharing with us their meal of delicious small potatoes, maize and the Andean grain, quinoa. Then the story emerges. Patawasi was attacked by Sendero in 1990. The village was torched and everyone had to flee for their lives.
‘Not one of us was caught, though,’ says Nativo. ‘We all got away.’
‘All of you?’
‘Well, all the men,’ he concedes. ‘The women and children were caught and taken up higher into the mountains.’
‘And the animals,’ he adds. ‘The terrorists slaughtered the animals and treated the women badly.’
‘What did they do?’ I ask the older woman, Sebastiana Ponce, who is sitting by the fire.
‘They beat us,’ she replies. ‘They accused of us of being soplones (snitches).’ A crime punishable by death. ‘It was very frightening.’ It would have been. There were about 180 Senderistas armed with guns, outnumbering the 150 or so villagers armed only with wooden stakes.
But in relative terms Patawasi got off lightly – there was only one attack and no-one died. Maybe it was just too remote and not strategically important enough. Of the 300 communities razed by Sendero in the department of Ayacucho during these years, several were attacked over and over again. In one, all 80 inhabitants were killed.
The villagers of Patawasi returned, rebuilt their houses and carried on. The Army gave them Winchester rifles with which to defend themselves. The arming of the rondas campesinas by the military from 1990 or so onwards was a turning-point in the struggle against Sendero. In the years that followed, peasant resistance snowballed. By 1994 there were 240,000 ronderos committed to fighting the insurgents, and during the 1990s highland communities by and large succeeded in forcing the terrorists down into the jungle regions. With some justification the ronderos claim that it was they – not government forces – that won the battle against Sendero Luminoso.
I ask the Patawasi men about their ronda today. Do they have guns now?
‘No,’ they say. ‘The army has taken them away.’ They are clearly not happy about it.
I take out old photos to show them. ‘That’s me!’ says Pedro, immediately recognizing himself walking along an irrigation ditch.
This was the irrigation system that Walter Ascarza had come to help them build. As it turned out the community had already done most of the work themselves. But there was something they did still need from outside: cement with which to line the irrigation ditches. That was something Co-operación Popular could supply.
I ask Pedro about Patawasi’s irrigation system today.
‘Well,’ he says, ‘we have one but it needs work. You see, it is rustic. What we need is cement to line the ditches with.’
‘Did you never receive any?’ I ask.
‘No,’ he answers, emphatically.
‘Have you received any development aid at all?’ I ask. The villagers look blank. I rattle off the names of a few agencies – NGOs and government.
‘Yes,’ recalls Pedro. ‘The Red Cross gave us some blankets after the attack by Sendero. We haven’t received anything since then.’
I walk around the village to see if anything has changed for its inhabitants. In 1985 there was a school building, but neither a teacher nor desks. It’s still there, but now it’s got desks and I am told there are two teachers who move between this and other villages.
It’s time to leave and on the way back down I see a man with a herd of startled-looking llamas, scarlet pompoms dangling from their ears. Felix on his way back, perhaps? I’m still hopeful.
‘I’m not Felix,’ the man replies. ‘I’m his father-in-law.’ And with that he gallops on up the hill, shooing his herd before him.
But what of Walter the idealist? I make contact with him a few days later, in the city of Ayacucho. He’s changed. Filled out with middle age, he has the look of a comfortable city-dweller. But there’s also a weary sadness about him now that was not there before.
I ask him if he ever went back to Patawasi. No, he says, he never went back. He actually stopped working with Co-operación Popular shortly after our visit. For the next few years he worked in various mines around the country, returning to Ayacucho to take up a job teaching at the University of Huamanga. He was then asked by Fujimori’s Cambio 90 party to run as their candidate for city mayor, a post he held until 1995.
It all seems so incongruous, especially when he tells me he’s currently restoring an old colonial seminary which is to be used as a tourism centre. I remember how in the highlands he had talked about the real Peru, the indigenous ‘Perú profundo’, and about the lasting negative legacies of colonialism.
Does he no longer want to work in the countryside? He sighs and replies he did work in the rural highlands for PAR (Programa de Apoyo al Repoblamiento) – the Government’s repopulation programme. ‘My job was to build houses. The idea was that we would provide materials, expertise, but the community would provide labour. The work should have taken three months but it took six instead because no-one in the community would lift a hand to help me. It was so demoralizing!’
What went wrong?
‘The solidarity, the community values of campesino life have been destroyed,’ he replies. ‘The weak are no longer protected, they are exploited. People will now steal roofing from widows, will wait for a sick man to die so that they can get their hands on his property rather than help him. The problem is that the campesinos took refuge in the cities, and the cities have corrupted them. Their traditional values been replaced by a cheating, mendacious mentality. Also aid has created dependency. The countryside is in ruins,’ he gloomily concludes.
Will the bag of cement have
arrived in fifteen years time?
I tell him my rather different impressions of Patawasi.
‘Some communities may have survived,’ he concedes. ‘But many have been destroyed.’ I give him a photo I took of him with some of the highlanders of Patawasi. He is pleased – even a little touched – to have it. I’m left thinking that so many people, from different walks of life, have gone through the mangle here in Ayacucho.
I also wonder, if I go back to Patawasi in 15 years time, will the bag of cement have arrived yet?
And would it be better if it had – or better if it hadn’t?
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