issue 321 - March 2000
The search begins in Ayacucho City… Would the passionate woman
who was then mayor have survived?… Gang warfare and the children
of violence… The nun who never sleeps and the weaver poet…
All photos by VANESSA BAIRD
What is it that makes some people leave an indelible impression in the sand of memory, while others are washed away on the next tide?
Whatever it is has left me with a vivid image of Leonor Zamora: fine features, long straight hair, etched smile lines. But most striking of all are her eyes: alight with passionate, focused energy.
As mayor of the city of Ayacucho, Zamora was cutting a controversial figure when I interviewed her in 1985. A few months earlier she had used a visit by the Pope John Paul II to protest against army abuse of human rights, waving a banner saying ‘stop the killing’. The army managed to bar her from meeting the Pope, in spite of her position. But she was not going to be prevented from speaking to journalists. I was ushered up the great stone stairs of the seventeenth-century council building on the main square of Ayacucho and into her draughty office. Leonor had just returned from a trip to Lima to find the pictures of two children on her desk – one aged 12, one 14. They had bright, intelligent faces. The youngsters had gone missing. ‘They take them in for questioning and torture them until they get five names out of them,’ she had told me, speaking softly.
‘Under torture children will give names of whoever is suggested to them. Mother, father, brothers, sisters, friends, neighbours, anyone. Then those will disappear too.’ She paused to let the horror sink in.
Over 150 children disappeared in Ayacucho during these years.
‘I don’t know where it will end; where we are heading,’ Zamora commented as we were parting. ‘There’s a limit to how much people can believe in, a limit to how much suffering they can take.’
I want to speak to Zamora now. She’s top of my list.
She was also top of someone else’s quite different kind of list, alas.
‘They gunned her down in the street, in broad daylight, not far from her office,’ says Oxfam’s Ayacucho chief Elizabeth Leon. ‘They did it in front of her children, if I remember rightly.’
‘Who did it?’
‘Army intelligence, we presume,’ she says, with the caution that has for so many Peruvians become a custom of survival.
It happened in 1985, a few months after I had interviewed Zamora and, as with so many events that took place during those most fearful years, lots of people were present when it happened – but nobody saw a thing. Police opened an investigation but it was a mere formality, soon to be closed for ‘lack of evidence’.
It’s too easy – not to say morbid – to imagine in retrospect that one saw the shadow of death hanging over a person. But Zamora was an uncommonly valiant woman who operated so close to the edge that you could not help but be concerned for her safety. ‘No-one confronted the Army so directly. No-one was so outspoken,’ says human-rights activist Pablo Rojas.
None of her family remained in Ayacucho after her murder. They too received threats, and fled.
I come away with a heavy heart, pondering the ease with which jackbooted brutality can crush a person’s passion for justice, obliterate someone who cared not only about the present, but the future too. And I think of Leonor’s concern for the children of Ayacucho, the children of violence.
Gangsters and torturers
Many of those children are now in their teens or early twenties. And it seems too much of a coincidence that a problem on everyone’s lips today in the city of Ayacucho is the plague of extremely violent teenage and youth gangs, called pandillas. During my visit there are a number of juvenile gangster incidents, one in which a Japanese tourist dies, another which claims the life of an elderly local man.
‘These are children of war, and theirs is a way of externalizing the oppression they have suffered, both as a result of violence and of poverty,’ according to Elizabeth Leon.
Even the names they give their gangs are poignantly indicative: Orphans, Fugitives, Shadows, She-Devils, Gladiators. The average age is 16, coinciding with the years of war. And there is a high proportion of girls’ gangs as well as boys’, just as Sendero Luminoso recruited a high proportion of young women to its ranks.
Unlike Sendero Luminoso, there is no politics in them. But the children are victims of politics nonetheless. There are plenty of tales of loss, of parents who have died, or disappeared, or been imprisoned. The civil-war years created 50,000 orphans and 500,000 young people were deeply affected. Many resorted to desperate survival strategies: prostitution, violence, alcohol abuse – but curiously not drug abuse, or not yet at any rate.
To combat the upsurge in violent crime the Government has come up with a new offence called ‘aggravated terrorism’ which commands tougher penalties.
It’s a term that has become cruelly engraved on the mind of teenager Huber Mendéz. I visit Huber and his father Dionisio in the working-class district of San Juan Bautista which is famed for its gangs.
At 11 o’clock every night, 17-year-old Huber would set out from his home and walk down to the city centre where he would meet his mother, a street vendor, and escort her home. A junior champion of kung fu, Huber possessed a martial-arts instrument called a namchaco (two metal tubes, about 30 centimetres long joined together by a chain) which he would carry on him for self-defence.
One night he had just set out when he was picked up by two police, Carlos Palazio and Oscar Flores. They took him to the police station where they beat him. Then, allegedly under orders from their superior William Saenz, they raped him with the namchaco, causing serious internal injuries. Then they charged the boy with ‘gangsterism’ and ‘aggravated terrorism’.
When Huber’s father went to the police station he was told his son would spend the rest of his life in prison unless he paid a bribe. ‘I didn’t give them any money for two reasons: one, my son is innocent and two, out of respect for our human rights,’ says the determined and meticulous Dionisio, a maths teacher by profession.
Dionisio is fortunate in that local lawyers with a concern for human rights have taken on the case without payment, ignoring police warnings to drop the case.
Huber is now on bail, but he has been quite shattered by his experience.
‘He is not as he was,’ says his father. ‘He’s always been a lively, responsible boy and a good student. Never had anything to do with gangs.’
Huber’s is one of the four cases of torture – two of which resulted in death – currently being investigated in Ayacucho by the local Public ‘Defender of the People’, Dr Eliana Revollar.
I decide to visit Revollar to ask her about the human-rights situation in Ayacucho today. She’s a clued-up woman in her thirties, clear-thinking but also careful about how she phrases things. She tells me that since 1994 there have been virtually no disappearances or extrajudicial killings by government forces. But the number of arrests has increased and other abuses apart from torture prevail within the justice system. For example, hundreds of people are currently imprisoned under charges of terrorism. Many are poor campesinos forced to co-operate with the men and women with guns.
Changes in law brought in by President Fujimori have also opened the floodgates for malicious accusations of terrorism which can land their victim with a prison sentence of 20 years or more. There are 5,000 or so people who have arrest warrants out against them, on the basis of little or no evidence.
In Ayacucho in 1985 the Army and the Navy were the main perpetrators of human-rights abuses, sometimes wiping out entire peasant communities in their search for terrorists. Since then the Navy has been withdrawn from the region and the Army has cleaned up its act on the killing front although abuses against peasants – especially rape and theft – still occur. The police force, however, has not improved.
‘Some police officers are aware of human rights,’ says Rebollar diplomatically. ‘But there is still a lot of work to be done.’
With so little confidence in the police, poor people are finding other ways to defend themselves. Sometimes with a little help from their friends.
A special kind of nun
One such is Madre Covadonga. At 76 you could reasonably expect this Spanish Dominican nun, who has spent the past 28 years in Ayacucho, to start slowing down.
‘We don’t sleep here,’ she tells me. ‘We are wide awake. We are not complacent. We are always looking for the next thing to do.’
She’s an extraordinary spirit, communicative and energetic as a tireless blackbird. Plain-dealing, expressive and quick-tempered, she has little patience with shirkers and prevaricators. Like her body, her voice is thin and reedy with age, not helped by a bad cold, but it nonetheless has tremendous, wiry forcefulness.
Madre Covadonga relates: ‘One day, during the worst years of the violence, I visited a mortuary and there were 30 people there, all victims of violence. And I thought, how can one human being do this to another? I could not stop thinking this as I walked back. For days I could not eat, could not rest. Then I thought: there is only one way, and that is by losing sight of the human being.’
And that is what she has sought to emphasize since. ‘I have a very good text of the human being,’ is how she expresses her faith in people.
Her consulting room is always packed with people hoping for a few minutes with her. Two boys are waiting with their worried-looking mother. The younger boy, aged 11 or so, seems totally locked into some kind of private hell. The old nun ruffles his hair: ‘This boy is going to be all right. I know he is’, and across his face passes the faintest little flicker of, maybe, hope.
Madre Covadonga has lived with the people of Ayacucho, suffered with them, received death threats with them, and even, to her surprise, had a shanty town named after her by them.
In 1991 she gave vigorous and vociferous support to an invasion of the piece of uncultivated land owned by the University of San Cristóbal de Huamanga. We are heading towards it now, in a jeep on loan from the bishop’s office. I can imagine her asking for it, and the ultra-traditional Opus-Dei-linked prelate finding it quite impossible to refuse her.
‘This is the legal Human Settlement of Covadonga,’ says the nun firmly.
I remember this site only too well, in another incarnation. I visited it in 1985. There was no-one living there then. On the contrary, this was a place where the bodies of people who had disappeared in the night might appear a few days later. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget the appalling sight of pigs routing and snuffling around human corpses.
Today it’s a place where people, most of them refugees, are building lives, making their own homes out of adobe bricks they have fashioned themselves from mud and sand. Getting possession of this piece of land, now home to more than 5,000 people, has not been easy. At one point Covadonga squatters marched to Lima, hundreds of miles and many mountains away, to bring their case to the President. Now it looks as if the University authorities have caved in.
In the middle of the settlement, Madre Covadonga has created a sanctuary, a chapel surrounded by plants, trees and sweet-smelling herbs.
In the sanctuary garden I find a local weaver and poet, Faustino Flores. He’s a thoughtful, soft-spoken man of 25: ‘Covadonga is a place of many bloods,’ he says. ‘Its people come from many parts. There are many young troubled people. It’s a very difficult community, with a tremendous potential for violence.’
In practice, though, it is one of the least violent. This is largely because it has adopted a model that is now universal in the countryside of rondas campesinas, peasant patrols. Faustino is one of the 20 or so urban ronderos who patrol the shanty town. Most of their work is preventative, much of it with juveniles. In some cases the patrollers will make a citizen’s arrest and lock miscreants up overnight, maybe even handing them over to the police, though there is an understandable reluctance to do this.
Faustino is a dedicated rondero, but his great love is weaving. He wants to show me his work (‘not to buy, just to see what I do’), but I can see that Madre Covadonga is getting restless. We make an appointment for a later date.
Faustino was taught by Edwin Sulca, probably the city’s most famous weaver. Sulca works in the artisans’ district of Santa Ana, and he is best known for his tapestries that chronicle Peru’s recent history and his passionate desire for peace. He was fortunate in that he managed to get his work out to the wider world.
I find him in his Santa Ana workshop, surrounded by tapestries which function more as evocative paintings than as carpets. I’m visiting to see if people I interviewed in 1985 are still there. I have with me a few names and some black-and-white photos I took then. Sulca recognizes several – and keeps their photos as mementoes. Some are relatives, others people he really admired and respected who have since died, mainly of old age.
In one of the photos, a group picture of kids, Sulca recognizes his own daughter, Fabiola. We go outside and he calls a woman in her late twenties. By now a group of people has gathered in the dusty square, sharing the excitement of recognizing the smiling children in the photo. That’s so-and-so, he went to Lima to study, that one is now a weaver, and that one... and so on. One by one each is given a name and accounted for. I hesitate to ask the dreaded question. But Sulca it seems has read my mind as he turns to me, beaming: ‘They are all still alive. None went with Sendero Luminoso. None has disappeared.’
That’s quite something in Ayacucho.
A tale of two artisans
Today he has all but given up weaving. Fujimori’s liberalization of the economy has flooded the market with cheap imports, making it even harder for local producers of any kind to make a living. Now he mainly works as a musician, teaching, playing at concerts and fiestas and composing his own music. For him it’s going back to his roots since he comes from a long line of musicians.
He’s as open with me now as he was before – showing me family photos, telling their history and even showing me the shrine in the corner where he keeps the bones of his parents. In a ramshackle old storeroom he shows me a statue of the Virgin he particularly loves for its unusual naturalistic pose.
Not everyone is as calmly outspoken as Santos Quispe. Floro Carceres Guerra (right) is another artisan I manage to track down. He makes retablos, the little painted boxes typical of Ayacucho which are crammed with painted clay figures, often enacting scenes from the Bible or with elements from peasant folklore.
In 1985 he gave me a simple cane retablo I still have hanging in my kitchen. He seems pleased when I tell him this, but he’s by nature a cautious man. At first he can’t believe the photos are of himself and says: ‘It’s not me,’ amidst howls of protest from his neighbours. He looks at the photos again, smiling for a while, gradually accepts the truth and invites me to go back with him to his house. Next to nothing has changed: except perhaps the design of the retablos.
I ask Floro whether he had any problems due to the violence. His daughter, Eulalia, begins to answer in the affirmative, Floro quickly talks across her saying: ‘No, not in this family.’ There is a boy in the photo from 1985, an apprentice. I ask about him, but Floro clearly does not want to talk. ‘I don’t remember him. We never had that problem in our family,’ he repeats quickly.
I recall a comment made a couple of days earlier by someone who told me that for her the turning-point was the capture of Sendero leader Abimael Guzmán in 1992. ‘I felt a weight had been lifted. One could talk now. Before you never knew who might be listening.’ I wonder: how widespread is that sense that you can talk now? How deep does it go? Later I will become aware that the reluctance to condemn wrong-doing by government forces is widespread – they are, after all, the ones in control now.
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