issue 321 - March 2000
ALL PHOTOS BY VANESSA BAIRD
EXCEPT WHERE OTHERWISE CREDITED
Vanessa Baird revisits the birthplace of Peru’s bloodiest civil conflict in search of people she met there more than a decade ago.
Like a lover, the golden orange glow steals across mountains, kissing them in their shadowy sleep. Once touched by the light the Andes rise out of the darkness, looking like an oddly soft, rumpled blanket of clay.
Part of my brain marvels at this strange intimacy of dawn. Another part is telling me something quite different: I’m feeling sick as a dog. The overnight bus from Lima to Ayacucho takes a brand-new road, rich in hairpin bends, that rises steeply up into the Andes and keeps you there at 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) for an oxygen-depleted age.
As we come down a little and enter a gentler terrain of plots and trees, I see something that shocks but does not surprise me: a group of men with guns, faces hidden by black balaclavas. They are peasants, ending their nocturnal ronda or patrol to defend themselves against the Maoist guerrillas of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) who launched one of South America’s bloodiest armed struggles in 1980. In the ensuing civil war - which is still not quite over yet - 25,000 to 30,000 people died and 600,000 became internal refugees.
It’s 15 years since I was last in Ayacucho, birthplace of this conflict. At that time the violence was heading for its bloody crescendo, with the peasants caught in the crossfire between the guerrillas and government forces that were then even more abusive. Now I’m back to try to find out what happened to the various women, men and children - people from all walks of life - that I met and interviewed then.
The bus finally pulls up in Ayacucho City - also known as Huamanga - the capital of the department of Ayacucho. I recall my previous arrival here on a grey March day in 1985, the military presence heavy as soldiers fired into the air and raised the flag in the main square. Local people stood under the colonial arches looking on, silent, unsmiling, giving away absolutely nothing.
Today the atmosphere could not be more different. In the bright Andean sunshine a group of kids whiz by on mountain bikes. Chicha - a twangy tropical Andean music that’s far too cheesy for panpipe purists - blasts out of open doorways. Shop-shutters are rattling upwards to display windows crammed with all manner of consumer imports: mobile phones, video cameras, Sony Walkmans. There’s even an Internet café, packed with computers and students. It looks for a moment as if Ayacucho has really taken off. Later I learn that this wealth exists mainly in deep little drug-lined pockets - the jungle coca-growing regions are not that far to the east. The surrounding economic reality in Ayacucho is little changed.
But the public places are spruce, clean and well-kept. That’s new. On one wall I see an official notice that warns me: `Urinating is forbidden, on pain of arrest.’ A troubling thought, after a long bus journey. There is a pervasive atmosphere of control under the rule of Alberto Fujimori, President of Peru since 1990. Now even the shoe-shiners are regulated, and have to wear yellow jerkins showing official approval.
But my first stop is a hotel bed and plenty of coca-tea to ease altitude sickness. Then the search begins for the people on my list. My main worry is the obvious one. Are they still alive? Are they still here? Or did they, like so many thousands, flee this place called Ayacucho - an inauspicious name that in Quechua means ‘corner of the dead’? If they are still around, how will they feel about someone coming back to stir up old memories?