In 2003, the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Committee (Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación/CVR), formed in 2001, published its final report on its findings and conclusions regarding violence perpetrated during the period of intense internal conflict between 1980-2000, when extreme leftist insurgency groups Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement/MRTA) faced off against the Peruvian government and its armed forces. It is estimated that 69,280 people were killed during this period, which is more than double the number that had been estimated before the commission’s report was published. As the has CVR noted, this is more deaths than those accrued during all of the conflicts recorded in Peru’s long history as a nation.
While the violence of the internal conflict was widespread and indiscriminate in some ways, claiming the lives of extremists, military personnel, journalists, as well as thousands of citizens not actively involved in the conflict, it must also be recognized that the majority of lives taken were those pertaining to the hidden margins of Peru – those belonging to indigenous communities. According to the conclusions of the CVR, 75% of the 69,280 Peruvians killed spoke Quechua as their native language.
Another finding of the CVR is that Sendero Luminoso was responsible for the largest percentage of total fatal victims, estimated at 54%. If one accepts those numbers, that means that 31,869 deaths must be attributed to governmental armed forces and the MRTA. As of yet, I haven’t found a breakdown of responsibility for the death toll created by these groups. That doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, but it does seem apparent that there is a vested interest in obfuscating the facts around governmental complicity here. The assignment of blame to the armed forces in the report is indeed less clear; the CVR finds that “in certain places and moments of the conflict, the acts of the armed forces not only involved some individual excesses on the part of specific officials or troops, but also generalized and/or systemized practices of violations of human rights, which constitutes crimes of humanity as well as transgressions of the norms established by International Human Rights” (Conclusions 46 and 55, Final CVR Report, translation mine). These conclusions go on to state that none of the governments that ruled Peru between 1980 and 2000, neither local, regional, nor national, are completely free from responsibility for what happened during this brutal, tragic period.
Perhaps the most important conclusion of the CVR in terms of envisioning a path forward is the following: according to the committee’s findings, “the internal conflict has had profound effects on all levels of national life. The amplitude and intensity of the conflict accentuated already serious national imbalances, destroyed democratic order, exacerbated poverty and deepened inequality, aggravated forms of discrimination and exclusion, weakened social and emotional networks, and propagated a cult of fear and distrust… The conclusion to be made here is that the consequences of the armed conflict puts our very future at risk, affecting decisively our construction as a national community of free and equal citizens in a plural, democratic country… The first step towards overcoming these consequences is that the country recognizes in all of its magnitude the dimensions of the horror lived between 1980 and 2000” (Conclusions 153 and 162, CVR Final CVR Report, translation mine).
The recording of individual testimonies and the publication of the CVR’s findings were some of the first steps taken on this national journey towards truth and reconciliation. The report itself, however, is inaccessible to the average Peruvian citizen, for a number of reasons (the length alone – estimated at 9,000 pages – makes it an impossibility, even with all other practical considerations taken out of the equation). To remedy this, and to provide a record of these years that could be witnessed by as many citizens as possible, the CVR commissioned a photo exhibit of the atrocities committed during the internal conflict to be displayed in El Museo de la Nación (the National Museum) in the San Borja district of Lima. While its original commission for display was approximately ten years, it has now been mandated to remain on display at the Museo de la Nación (in the San Borja district in Lima) until the year 2024.
Moving through the twenty-four rooms that comprise the exhibit is emotionally very difficult, as the content of many of the photographs is just heartbreaking. Along with numerous images of the dead – including remains exhumed from fosas comunes (the term “communal graves” is too kind for what these really are, which is essentially covered over dumping site for the bodies of those who were killed without remorse and without impunity), bodies stripped of clothing and lined up for counting and removal, and mothers, partners, children and friends mourning their dead – there are also photographs of those who survived violent attacks, in most cases with significant wounds and injuries. There are also chilling portraits of the cryptic warnings left in towns like Ayacucho by Senderistas, such as dead dogs hanging from lampposts, and political discourse covering the walls of university centers (the leader of Sender Luminoso, Abimael Guzmán, was a professor of history who used his position as an intellectual leader to indoctrinate his first followers).
There is also visual testimony of members of numerous indigenous communities arming themselves against Sendero attacks (and, presumably, those of other groups, as well), images of conflicts continuing even in the jails of Peru, and documentation of the violence that finally moved to the urban center of Peru in the early 1990s, shocking the denizens of communities like Miraflores with violence that was no longer contained in the rural margins of the country.
Perhaps the most visceral experience – for me, at least – was the testimony room. Composed of the portraits of six murdered/disappeared Peruvians hung on backlit speaker boxes, each box plays the looped testimony of a loved one surrounding their arrest, disappearance, or death.
Walking into the room, it first seemed a jumbled cacophony of voices – a sort of communal chorus in which the only salient features were clear projections of pain, anger, and injustice. Letting myself take this in for a few minutes, I then began to move around the room, leaning in to listen to the individual testimonies themselves. What I heard took my breath away, and it was impossible to fight away tears as I listened to the tragedies that had befallen these individuals and their families. As others filtered in and out, there were many hands pressed against hearts, as well as sleeves wiping away tears. I listened for as long as I could, and made a few recordings to document my research, which is being generously funded by a Baecke Grant for the Humanities from St. Ambrose University. I first captured a few recordings of the chorus itself, then one moving around picking up fragments of various testimonies. Finally, I recorded the full testimony of Abel Malpartida Paéz, which recounts the horrific discovery of the death of her 19-year-old son upon being confronted with the image of his decapitated head in the pages of a local newspaper. For reasons that are still not clear, he and a classmate had been hung from a post in a nearby square, blown up with C4 while still alive, their remains dispersed and left where they fell.
I was surprised, towards the beginning of my tour, to see a group of school children being guided through the exhibit by their teachers. They looked to be about eight or nine – 2nd or 3rd grade, in the U.S. – which seemed to me a tender age to be subjected to these images. Many had wide eyes and serious faces, and some of the girls cried in distress. Their teachers explained to them as they led them through that while this was a very sad part of Peru’s history, it is important to recognize it so that it doesn’t ever happen again.
This is one of the key functions of testimony, of course, and its importance cannot be emphasized enough. This path towards truth and reconciliation is also being constructed through other means in current-day Peru. A number of writers, artists, filmmakers and others continue to ensure that this piece of history is not forgotten. My reason for coming to Peru, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is to continue research on a project revolving around social and testimonial comics created by Peruvian historietistas. Jesús Cossio, for example, continues to work on a trilogy of graphic novels that serve as a graphic narrative testimony of the atrocities committed during this period. The first volume, co-authored with Luis Rossell and Luis Villar, is titled Rupay: Historias gráficas de la violencia en el Perú 1980-1984. The second volume – a solo project – is titled Barbarie: Violencia política en el Perú, 1985-1990. As Cossio told me during the course of a recent interview, he is currently undertaking research to create a third volume in this compelling trilogy. Juan Acevedo, as well, has been creating social comics here in Peru for over four decades. While his early work (especially that produced during the years of the conflict itself) functions more on an allegorical level than via realistic presentations of conflict, animal characters such as El Cuy, Humberto, La araña no and his sidekick Robin, among others, came to form the first members of a brigade of comics characters fighting for social justice and human rights in Peru. For more, check out their blogs! Acevedo’s Diario del cuy is at elcuy.wordpress.com and Cossio’s blog can be accessed at jesuscossio.blogspot.com). You can also follow them on Facebook.