issue 321 - March 2000
Shining bloodstained path
Along the tortuous route of hopes, dreams and death… Talks with
those who followed and believed in Sendero Luminoso…
The road is full of bends, as we weave down into a parched, bone-white landscape that supports cactus and little else besides. My travelling companion for these few hours – I’ll call him ‘Eduardo’ – is reminiscing.
‘We came down here by night. There were 90 of us. We crossed the valley and then went up by that bridge...’ he indicates the spot. ‘Sometimes there were three or four columns of 100 people each and we would descend together on one village!’ he says with a strange, heady mix of nostalgia, excitement and the peculiar buzz of releasing a secret.
‘How old were you then?’
‘I was 12 when I took part in my first political action. It was back in the 1970s. We bombarded a police post with rocks. The police had been committing abuses... The people just rose up against them. It was incredible!’
It does not take a great deal of imagination to understand the appeal of guerrilla life for an adolescent with energy to spare. And, I imagine, a teenage Eduardo was just the kind of bright kid Sendero liked to recruit.
‘Sometimes we would walk for days without eating. But I was fortunate to have wonderful leaders, wonderful teachers. My column was led by a woman. About 30 per cent of our column were women.’
Eduardo had loved one of them, a girl his age. Wounded in action, she died in his arms. By the time he was 16 he had been captured by government forces and tortured. Sendero Luminoso training had prepared him for it. ‘You have to fill your mind with something, anything absorbing. Like a film, so that when they torture you and when they inject you with a truth drug that’s what comes out, the film, the book or whatever. You must not think about your comrades or an action or anything like that.’
After a few weeks he was released – his family having paid the required bribes. He immediately went back to the countryside, to Sendero: ‘Twice as angry, twice as determined!’ But a couple of years later he stopped being a militant and went back to his studies.
I’m thinking of Eduardo at 15 – and myself at that age. I think probably my most subversive act was reading a pamphlet by Engels in school mass, while around me my classmates bleated: ‘Holy, holy, holy...’ It does not quite compare.
I wonder... what if I had been a teenager in Ayacucho instead? Where would I be now? Would I have resisted the pull of Sendero Luminoso?
That pull was quite considerable for many young Ayacuchans trying to make sense of the world around them. Sendero Luminoso provided a thorough, convincing analysis of the economic and ethnic injustices all too apparent in their country. Better still, it had an active strategy for changing things: prolonged armed struggle made possible by mobilizing the peasantry.
It would take years, decades to achieve. But they believed it was the only way to uproot the pattern of colonial domination that replicated itself time and again, in spite of independence, in spite of land reform, in spite of democracy. Put very crudely, the capital, Lima, remained the white- and mestizo-dominated, Spanish-speaking colonial power; rural Ayacucho and its Quechua-speaking people constituted the oppressed, the marginalized, the colonized.
In the early days, at least, the peasants often welcomed the young Senderistas who came to their villages, who helped them harvest and took an interest in their situation. And many people in the city of Ayacucho were happy that someone at last seemed to be speaking up for them, making a noise in a country so dominated by the power of the capital.
Indeed ordinary citizens turned out in their thousands for the funeral of young Edith Lagos, student, poet, daughter of a city merchant and Sendero Luminoso fighter – killed by the Army in 1982.
Eduardo comes from an urban, professional background. But he grew up nourished by a political culture that, like the fruit of the cactus, has grown abundantly under the most arid conditions. Unlike those of Europe or North America, the radical politics of this region was not forged in the foundries of industry but, if anything, in response to the dire lack of it. In 1980 Ayacucho lived in a pre-industrial world and an employment desert. Alarmingly, that situation still prevails today. What it did have, however, was a university, and one that drew some of the country’s sharpest minds to it.
The University of San Cristóbal de Huamanga does not look like the birthplace of revolutionary fervour. Its thick stone walls and seventeenth-century archways and porticoes exude a discreet charm. Founded in 1677, it is Peru’s second-oldest university. But it was here that philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán started laying plans and recruiting cadres for the prolonged armed struggle that would in his words ‘leave rivers of blood, leave millions dead’. The university café gives out on to a pink-painted courtyard. Here I meet Carlos Valer, the affable public-relations officer for the University. Valer was a student here from 1968.
There’s something of Salvador Dali about his slicked-back hair and characterful face. He’s an oddball. When he was a student three things set him apart from his fellows: his Jewishness; his Trotskyist politics (a minority persuasion in Peru); and the fact that he did not come from Ayacucho but from Cuzco. These things helped ‘marginalize’ Valer somewhat – not something he regrets. He observed developments during the tumultuous years keenly, but from the sidelines.
What attracted him to Ayacucho, and has kept him here all these years, was the spirit of its people. ‘They were rebellious, irreverent. I loved that. In Cuzco the buildings have all the character; in Ayacucho it’s the people!’ This was reflected in the intellectual life of the University too. ‘We did not learn politics from a manual. It was present in everything we studied. For example: if you learned about Newton’s Laws of Physics you also learned about the social-economic context of Britain at that time. The teaching was the most modern, the most progressive, in Peru. We all believed that to be human is to be political. And the politics that prevailed was leftist. The University provided the perfect link for the middle class and a first generation of students whose parents were peasants.’
Into this world came another outsider, this time from the city of Arequipa: Abimael Guzmán.
‘I remember him as a rather cold, inexpressive person. Always very correctly dressed. Not given to gesticulation. Not a talker’ says Valer. ‘But the students who were taught by him spoke very highly of him. They said he was the most intelligent of all their teachers.’
Guzmán drew to him those studying education and students of peasant families. These were to be the cadres who would go back to their communities and spread the revolutionary gospel according to Comrade Gonzalo, Guzmán’s nom de guerre.
The big argument of those years in Peru was not between Left and Right but between the pro-Soviet and the pro-China factions of the Communist Party. There was an acrimonious split and the group that came to dominate university politics in Ayacucho was the pro-China faction that gathered around Guzmán and called itself Bandera Roja (red flag).
At its peak around 500 students, that’s about half the University’s population, belonged to Bandera Roja. ‘They were disciplined, organized and methodical. They won most of the elections,’ Valer recalls.
Then, in clandestine meetings, they started studying the texts of José Carlos Mariátegui, a Peruvian communist writer of the 1920s. The new name for the movement, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), came from his writings.
'It was the sort of speech a general gives before a battle.
I realized: Caramba! These people are serious.'
At this point it all still seemed pretty academic. Students would run through the streets shouting ‘Viva la lucha armada!’ (‘long live the armed struggle’), but this was the sort of thing one would expect.
Then one day in 1979 Valer, who ran the University’s cine club, was visited by students who demanded the projector for a meeting they were about to hold. Out of curiosity he went along: ‘It was quite a memorable experience. The hall was crammed with hundreds of people, and festooned with red banners. All in very good taste. There was a huge portrait of Mao. Very impressive. At the end Guzmán gave a speech. It was the sort of speech a general gives an army before a battle. At that point I realized: Caramba! These people are serious…’
They were. Student rhetoric, academic debate, metaphorical language was over. It was literal. The war had begun, and the ‘rivers of blood’ would flow. It started with a trickle. In early 1980 five youths disrupted elections in the village of Chuschi. During the following years insurgents attacked police stations to seize weapons, dynamited bridges and electricity power lines to sever links between town and country, and orchestrated ‘armed strikes’ in various towns in and around Ayacucho. Peasant and community leaders who openly resisted the insurgents were ‘executed’.
Then in 1982 the Government, headed by Fernando Belaúnde Terry, played straight into Sendero’s hands by unleashing bloody repression in Ayacucho, Huancavelica and Apurímac.
Roving Sendero fighters would pass through a village and demand food. In their wake would come the military, who would shoot villagers for collaborating with the subversives. Hundreds of innocent peasants, sometimes entire communities, were massacred by government forces.
The centre-left APRA Government of Alan García, which came into power in 1985, also committed gross human-rights abuses. Sendero violence expanded throughout Peru, as did their choice of targets to include aid workers, left-wing mayors, shanty-town leaders, teachers, nuns, priests – anyone who might be seen as a rival. By the late 1980s nowhere was safe.
'I think the path I took was incorrect. But I never had bad
intentions. I didn't join Sendero in order to kill people'
President Alberto Fujimori adopted a far more strategic approach when he came to power in 1990. In some cases the job of trying to track down the heads of the movement was taken out of the hands of the military and handed over to the best police detectives. This culminated in the capture of Abimael Guzmán himself in a house in a middle-class Lima suburb in 1992. Oscar Ramírez Durand (‘Comrade Feliciano’), one of the original leaders, assumed effective leadership of the movement.
Splits appeared, and there were reports that the imprisoned Guzmán did not agree with the line being taken by Durand’s newly named Sendero Roja – Red Path. In summer 1999 Durand too was captured. Sendero attacks have continued but more sporadically, as with the killing of nine police in October 1999. Columns are still active in the drug-growing areas of the jungle of Ayacucho, Alto Huallaga and Junin. But it’s nothing like the old days. Eduardo, the former Sendero fighter, has his own perspective on what happened: ‘Sendero has lost its direction,’ he says. ‘It has lost its historic leaders, they’ve all been killed or captured. It’s attracting the wrong sort of people, people with no real politics, with no ideology.’
He also believes Sendero misjudged the campesinos and their ‘suitability’ as a revolutionary force. And he’s angry. ‘To think of all the good, good people who died for these campesinos who just weren’t worth it, who would betray you for a plate of food.’
Sendero expert Carlos Iván Degregori sees it rather differently: he thinks Sendero was destroyed by its inability to recognize the strength of peasant traditions and values. The rebels’ zeal for capital punishment was especially problematic. Traditionally, peasants who stole or cheated were punished by their communities, but ‘not to the point of death’. This went against the grain for peasant communities too small and marginal to have such a wasteful attitude to life.
Sendero also failed to appreciate the scale of resistance that was mounting against them in the shape of the peasant patrols, armed by the military from 1990 onwards, and supported by evangelical churches.
I ask Eduardo if he thinks Sendero Luminoso will ever make a comeback. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘in some form. People are quiet but they hold it here,’ he says, tapping his heart.
If Eduardo is free to live a normal life, it’s because he’s educated and he’s got money. Many are not so fortunate, as I discover on a trip to the new Yanamilla High Security Prison on the outskirts of Ayacucho city.
High-security it certainly is. Stuck out in the middle of exposed rocky scrap land, you have go through a military compound to reach it. Of the several hundred prisoners held here about 100 are in on terrorism charges.
The terrorist pavilions are cramped and overcrowded, but I’ve seen worse. A small, very young-looking man pushes himself forward. He’s Gilberto Figueroa Quispe, and I’m surprised to learn he is 26. He speaks very softly, looking down at his hands. He’s in the fourth year of a life sentence for ‘treason’.
Like so many of Peru’s 22,000 political prisoners, he is from a peasant background. He used to live in San Francisco, the jungle part of Ayacucho, growing bananas, coffee and cocoa. Then one day he was picked up by the military. They told him he had been denounced by someone he knew.
‘Did you have anything to do with Sendero?’ I ask.
‘No, never,’ he insists.
‘Did they not force you to help them in some way?’
‘Never,’ he insists. ‘I never participated.’
But he says he was beaten by soldiers to the point of making a confession. He’s desperate to get back to his family. He has two small children. He misses them. It pains him that he is not there for them. There are many more stories just like Gilberto’s.
Finally, as I leave the male pavilion, a middle-aged man walks alongside, talking to me quietly but assuredly. He’s the prisoners’ delegate. He speaks of the plight of the ‘innocents’, and the people who were forced to co-operate with Sendero in some way. Is that the situation of most people here? ‘Yes,’ he replies.
I find Isabel Hernadez Bautista, aged 26, in the sewing workshop of the women’s pavilion. She’s in for life for ‘treason’ and is quite a different kettle of fish. When I ask her if she ever was ‘of Sendero’, she surprises me by answering simply: ‘Yes’.
She was a militant, a guerrilla, who took part in ‘actions’ in 1989 and 1990. She was 15 or 16 years old at the time. Her reasons for getting involved with Sendero were: ‘I wanted to change things for the poorest. That was my motive. Joining Sendero was the opportunity that presented itself and I took it.’
What does she think of that decision now?
‘I think the path I took was incorrect. But I never had bad intentions, I didn’t join Sendero in order to kill people.’
I ask her how she sees the movement now. She hesitates.
‘Has it changed course?’ I suggest.
‘Changed?!’ she retorts. ‘It’s lost it!’ I try to draw her on this, but it’s hard with the prison governor hovering around.
I like Isabel. There’s a down-to-earth honesty and clarity about her. Tentatively, I ask her how she sees her future.
‘I’m a realist. I do what I can. I work in the prison workshop making clothes. I talk to the other prisoners; I try to help them. That’s my life now. That’s what I devote myself to.’
And her hopes?
‘I hope that others do not make the mistakes I made.’
I think of one phrase I recently read in a book about Sendero: ‘It drew some of the best to it.’ I suspect Isabel may have been one of them.
The student profile
On the way back from the prison I’m thinking about another remark Isabel made: ‘I did not join Sendero for the salary.’ And then I think of Carlos Valer’s assessment of students today: ‘The student profile is: fearful, a little without hope. Pragmatic, hedonistic, narcissistic. There is zero interest in politics. What interests the typical student of today is: how to make their first million by the age of 21!’
Not surprisingly, accountancy is oversubscribed, while there’s been a dramatic drop in the social sciences. It’s partly due to a rejection of political ideology and the methods of Sendero, but also to a sense of the futility and uselessness of all the traditional political institutions, including those of the democratic left.
It’s dark and I’m late for an interview with Wilma Ortega, the diminutive, feisty and hugely impressive president of the Ayacucho Federation of Mothers’ Clubs. She lives where she always has, in the poor district of San Juan Bautista. While we are talking, her 17-year-old daughter Kelly comes in. Kelly is studying in Lima. She also sings. In fact she has been composing songs since she was 12, and has made a couple of recordings locally.
She sings me a song called ‘The Palace of Justice’. It begins: ‘In the palace of justice there is no justice, no justice for the poor.’
My mind fills with the faces of the people I saw and listened to in prison this afternoon. I know exactly what Kelly is singing about. Politics may be out of fashion, a hazardous occupation for the young of this city, but a longing for social justice is by no means dead in all of Ayacucho’s children. It just may be that they have to go elsewhere to sing about it.
Brown hand, white hand, red hand
Meanwhile, the rest of Peru seems to be coming to Ayacucho. A convoy of rich Limenians has arrived at the Hostal Santa Rosa. They are strange, loud-voiced creatures in their Daewoo land-cruisers complete with oxygen bottles for the journey over the mountains.
A no-go zone for years, Ayacucho is now being heavily promoted for internal tourism. In the hotel restaurant the women tourists are hovering over their spoilt, screaming offspring. A waiter is trying to get past. ‘Excuse me,’ he says politely. They ignore him. He asks again. He’s very apologetic. Eventually one of the women moves, with annoyance and without apology.
I notice that without exception these Peruvian tourists are white. And I recall a comment made to me by Peruvian journalist Carlos Reyna: ‘Peru is the most racist country in South America – and the one where racism is least discussed.’
A cartoon advertisement appears on the restaurant television. It’s a campaign to warn children about sexual abuse by adults. The story line is: there are some good adults you can trust, and some bad ones you can’t. The adults are represented by two hands, one good hand, one bad hand. You have probably guessed the rest. The good hand is white, the bad hand brown. It all ends well, though, because the kids make the right choice – go with the white hand and shoo off the brown.
Meanwhile, the real-life children in the restaurant carry on whining and dining while their over-soliticitous mothers go on being rude to the waiters. And I wonder what has changed. What have these people learned from the years of terror? Do they ever imagine that it might have had something to do with them?
I want to bundle them off and take them on a different tour of Ayacucho than the one they have planned. To the prison, to meet Gilberto who cannot see his own children because he is poor and accused and Isabel who, mistaken as her course might have been, did care about something other than just herself and her own. To San Juan Bautista to listen to Kelly’s song and hear what police did to Huber. To the Human Settlement of Covadonga where people make something of their lives out of nothing and despite the never-ending greed of the rich and cosseted.
I want to show them all this. And then, with a tug, my mind goes back to a Jubilee 2000 poster I saw earlier calling for cancellation of the foreign debts the poorest Third World countries owe the rich world and its financial institutions. The rich world to which I belong. And I wonder: what about the blood on my hands, the blood I so conveniently do not see?
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