Kids in Pampamarca, Peru
It was November 2002 and I was sitting in a small conference room in Lima, taking notes as a woman tearfully related the story of her years in detention. She spoke, low and soft, eyes cast down. In her lap, the woman (who I'll call Lourdes) cradled a newborn baby bundled in a pink blanket.
I had left my own 9 month old baby at home to lead a volunteer team on a one week trip to Peru to monitor the work of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación or CVR). Our team was interviewing Lourdes and several other inocentes, just a scant handful of the more than 14,000 Peruvians who were detained, tortured, and denied a fair trial under 1992 anti-terrorism decrees.
Between 1980 and 2000, the conflict between the Peruvian government and the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) rebel groups resulted in approximately 69,000 people killed and disappeared.
As many as 600,000 were internally displaced. I saw the tent cities on the outskirts of Lima, where thousands of people who had fled the political violence in the highlands had lived for twenty years.
Most of the deaths and disappearances happened in the altiplano, the highlands of Peru. Up here, far from urban Lima, the air is fresh. The windswept landscape seems hardly touched by humans, much less their conflicts. Human rights abuses are ugly, but they happen even in the most beautiful of places in our world.
Lourdes told us about the day she was arrested in early 1993. She and her husband were students. They had a three-and-a-half year old son who had health problems, so she had left the house before daybreak to get medicine for him. As she was returning to her house, she was stopped and arrested by the National Directorate Against Terrorism. It turns out that the Shining Path had bombed a nearby part of Lima. Lourdes and four other women who also happened to be out early that morning were arrested, blindfolded and interrogated. “One police officer told us that all of us would die,” she said quietly. Two hours after they were arrested, they were exhibited to the media at a press conference. The arrest was presented as a triumph over terrorism.
For the first several months, Lourdes was detained on a military base. The conditions were very bad. She was allowed to use the bathroom only once a day - with 3 or 4 soldiers pointing their rifles at her - and to bathe once a week.
She was tortured, a word that we Americans use casually. Having to stand in a long line for your burrito at Chipotle is not torture. Enduring beatings and being told that they will send soldiers for your small son if you don't give them information - information that you don't have - about other "terrorists". Not knowing when it will ever end. Not knowing if you will ever see your family again.
Lourdes was later moved to a prison, which she described as looking “like a paradise” compared to the military base.
Lourdes' husband, who we also interviewed that day, was arrested a month after she was. His father had to go to the police station to recover their little son, who was cared for by relatives for the next 9 years. Six months later, one of Peru’s “faceless” courts (called that because a one-way mirror concealed the identity of the prosecutors and judges) found Lourdes and her husband guilty of treason and sentenced them to life in prison.
Lourdes and her husband were not allowed to see each other during their detention. Their letters to each other were read. For one whole year during her detention, after her sentence was reduced to 30 years, she was not allowed to have visits from anyone. Eventually, Lourdes and her husband were able to submit their cases to a Presidential pardons panel. She was pardoned in 2001, just a few weeks before the ninth anniversary of her arrest. Now Peru was at peace again, trying to repair the damage of 20 years of conflict.
Plaza des Armas, Ayacucho
The interviews went on for more than six hours, but either Lourdes or her husband held that baby for the entire time. They didn't put her in her baby carrier or pass her to the others who offered to hold her. They just took turns holding her close. She wasn't angry at the government, but she was sad. I remember Lourdes saying to me afterwards, “We lost so much time with our son. Now he is a teenager and we’re strangers to him.”
Lourdes’ story highlights some of the problems of a government response to terrorism that doesn't provide adequate protections for due process and other rights in the administration of justice. The Peruvian experience with terrorism was striking back in 2002, when the US human rights community was very concerned about just how far the War on Terror might go. Nearly ten years later, it is a lesson that remains relevant.
Be vigilant. Hold your loved ones close. Forgive if you can. Never forget.
The photos of Sendero Luminso and the displacidos above are images from the Peruvian TRC's Photographic Exhibit Yuyanapaq. Para recordar (Yuyanapaq. To Remember). More than 200 photos of the conflict in Peru from 1980-2000 were displayed in a partially demolished house near Lima. I visited the exhibit in 2004.