issue 321 - March 2000
The dust also rises
On to a gathering of those who will not forget…
The valley in which the city of Ayacucho lies becomes a dustbowl in the dry season. When the wind blows, dust rises in spirals which at first glance give the impression, viewed from the high hillsides, that they are smoking fires. One such spiral enters the second floor of the Comedor Aldolfo Péres Ezquivel, an unfinished breeze-block building which normally functions as a popular diner.
Today is special. It’s the thirtieth of the month and this is the place and time for speaking out. ‘We do not remain silent, with arms folded,’ says the redoubtable Angélica Mendoza (top right), addressing the assembled group of relatives of the disappeared.
The arrest of Pinochet has once more brought the spotlight on to the relatives of the disappeared in Chile. Who has heard of the relatives of Ayacucho? Yet the figure of 2,900 who ‘disappeared’ at the hands of government forces, rising to 5,000 if you include extrajudicial killings and those whose bodies simply turned up, exceeds that of Chile during the darkest years of its military dictatorship.
Why do we not hear about this? Why are there no international calls for justice? Why, even within Peru, is the plight of the relatives still hardly known, let alone discussed? The answer is staring me in the face. Sitting on wooden benches are about 30 women in rough woollen skirts, wide-brimmed hats atop plaits and strong Indian features. Almost all are Quechua speakers, almost all are poor.
‘Racism,’ says human-rights activist Pablo Rojas, simply. ‘In Chile the victims were mainly mestizos, city-dwellers, students, not Indians from the countryside.’
In Peru Indian peasants bore the brunt of disappearances, and their search for truth is marginalized even within the human-rights world. Angélica Mendoza, aged 69, started the organization for the families of the disappeared in 1983 after her 19-year-old son Archimedes went missing. The memory still prompting tears, she tells how she searched for him through piles of bodies while soldiers stood by, slinging death threats and obscene abuse at her.
‘I don’t care if you kill me,’ she told them. ‘I’m looking for my son.’ It’s a terrible story, but one shared by all these relatives in some form or other. They tell of husbands, daughters, sons, sometimes several family members who went missing.
Angélica remembers a woman I met in 1985 called Lucila Castillo, who had lost her daughter, Elsa. Lucila was not typical: she was a middle-class Spanish speaker from the jungle town of Iquitos. I remember her telling me how the experience had, in a tragic way, opened her eyes to the reality of Indian women – the mamacitas – and brought her closer to them. I now learn that Lucila continued her search in Ayacucho for two more years before eventually moving to Lima.
Another gust of dust enters the room, through the open sides of the unfinished second floor. The turbulence is emotional too as Pablo Rojas asks the relatives the following: ‘What is it you want? What do you want most?’ He outlines four options: ‘Is it to know the truth? Or is it to have the body and give it a proper burial? Is it to have justice? Or is it to have reparation?’
One by one they give their views, which vary. But top priority is: ‘to know the truth.’ Followed by: ‘to have the body.’ Then ‘justice’. Although all the women are hard up and many don’t even have enough to send their children to school, ‘financial reparation’ comes last.
The monthly meeting is drawing to a close. Several of the women come to me and tell me their own stories. The knocks on the door. The arrests at night. The child who never came home. It’s heart-rending. But it makes me angry too. The authorities must know who they arrested, what they did with them.
One woman answered Pablo’s question with: ‘I just want him to come home.’ It is of course what they all want and feel. If they accept the death in their minds without the knowledge, it is like killing the loved one in their mind. But they don’t know. They don’t know. And this withholding is a huge emotional crime, on top of all the other crimes that have been committed against them. Rather than address the issue the Fujimori Government has granted an amnesty to all military personnel involved in anti-subversive activities during this period. Meanwhile Angélica was arrested and accused of being an ‘ambassador for Sendero’ – ironic as she herself only narrowly escaped a Sendero assasination bid.
Maybe the authorities hope the dust will settle and the women will go home, taking their tears with them. But the dust hasn’t settled and the disappeared won’t be forgotten until the truth is told. Only then can the women here, in their hearts and minds, finally bury their dead.
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