Peru's Dispossessed Look Homeward

September 25, 2007

Two years ago, a violent attack on the Ayacuchan village of Nuñunhuaycco-Patahuasi by the fundamentalist Maoist group Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) left 22 peasants dead. Those lucky enough to escape fled into the mountains. The next day they returned to their village to find their homes and harvests burned, and their friends and family killed. The dead were left with their throats slashed and tongues cut out. Shining Path has killed hundreds of peasants in this fashion, for the "crime" of organizing defense patrols and for allegedly collaborating with the armed forces.

The 241 survivors fled their village in search of safe haven–joining an exodus of over half a million Peruvians in the past decade. One group fled to nearby Huamanga, he capital of Ayacucho, where a swelling population of displaced people has doubled the town's population in less than a decade. Another group embarked on the long journey–across mountains, time and cultures–to Lima. Most of the latter group settled in the sprawling shantytowns that encircle Lima, staying with earlier migrants to the capital until they were able to settle into small places of their own. The anonymity of these cities, they thought, would surely provide them with some tranquillity.

But as most of the internal refugees of Peru's 13-year-old war have found, their new homes offered nothing of the sort. Those who have fled the violence, often with nothing other than the clothes on their backs, have few resources to make it in these urban centers. According to the Center for Promotion and Development of the Population (CEPRODEP), 70% of Peru's displaced people do not meet their basic needs, and 15% are indigent. Many peasants, especially women and children, are monolingual Quechua speakers, or at best have a minimal command of Spanish.

Because they were forced to flee without notice, many displaced people do not have their identity cards, necessary for even the simplest transaction and required to obtain formal employment. The language barrier, and the stigma of being "cholo"–a derogatory name for dark-skinned Peruvians of Indian extraction–make it even more difficult to find a stable job . And in the context of Peru's economic crisis and neoliberal state cutbacks that hit the poorest the hardest, economic possibilities for the displaced have shrunk dramatically. They are forced to eke out a living as street vendors or day workers, never sure of the next day's meal, living in quiet desperation in a profoundly racist society that has long considered its indigenous peasant population the cause of its underdevelopment.

Internal refugees also face monumental barriers in new cultural contexts that add to the trauma of forced displacement. "For me, Lima was like another world," recalled Saturnino, a boy who fled his Ayacuchan village at the age of eight with his mother and three sisters. "It made me sad, because it was like a desert where there were only houses and cars, and no trees. But my greatest sadness was the way I was pushed aside here in Lima. Limeños see themselves as superior, and when I was in school nobody wanted to play with me just because I am from the sierra. Even the teachers treated me badly because I didn't pronounce Spanish very well."

This profound sense of uprootedness explains why so many internally displaced people profess such a strong desire to return to their homelands. Another incentive to return is the considerable insecurity which persists in areas of supposed refuge. The armed forces considers individuals of peasant extraction likely subversives, and Shining Path regularly preys on refugee settlements, demanding food and shelter, and sometimes settling scores. Social workers who assist Peru's internal refugees say that on numerous occasions, displaced families have been forced to flee their supposed safe havens.

But until recently, the persistent violence in the countryside precluded the possibility of return. So it was noteworthy when, this past April, over 100 peasants from Nuñunhuaycco-Patahuasi decided to organize a return visit to their village to investigate the situation, with the goal of organizing a fullfledged return within the next two years. One group travelled from Lima to Huamanga, where they met up with their former neighbors. From there, they continued on to their old village.

The festive mood of the journey was dispelled once the caravan reached its destination. Each person came face to face with the memories of what had forced the community to flee: the death of friends and family, the destruction of homes and fields, the loss of animals and belongings. There were long moments of silence, then tears and hugs. "It was a kind of collective catharsis," said one observer. "Everyone was so moved to be back in their community after so many hardships." After confronting those dark moments that no one wanted to remember, the villagers renewed their conviction to permanently return sometime in the future.

A short while after their arrival, the group came together in an assembly, at which the head of the local Political-Military Command was present. In Quechua (duly translated for the military commander), the peasants reproached the army for its past abuse of authority, and demanded that the Commander and his troops respect them and their organizations. Whether or not the military commander's assent to this demand was sincere, the mere fact that such a dialogue took place at all is evidence of an emerging tenuous alliance between the military and dozens of peasant communities in the Andean highlands. Shining Path's strategy of provoking polarization between themselves and the army has been largely successful–with the ironic result, however, that most peasants have sided with the army. And while the army has indeed engaged in egregious human rights abuses, many peasants have felt an overriding need to protect themselves from Shining Path's brutal attacks.

After a two-day visit, the majority of the group went back as planned to their temporary homes in Huamanga and Lima. A small group of 10 families, however, decided not to leave. "I'm staying," said a young woman named Rosa, who was accompanied by her husband. "Here there is atmosphere; there is life; there is space to farm and to feed my goats. I'll send for my children in Huamanga soon. Why should I be afraid?"

Most refugees, however, are indeed still afraid to return. While More people are seriously considering returning to their homelands, no one can argue that conditions are propitious for a full-blown resettlement process. Reconstruction aid and basic security guarantees–neither of which is present in Peru–are the two basic conditions for a successful resettlement process. But the fact that resettlement is even being discussed in local forums and newspapers is a striking change in a war in which the victims have historically been silent.

The internal refugees of Peru's brutal war between Shining Path and the state security forces–in international lexicon the "internally displaced"–are mostly poor peasants from the Southern and Central Andes, though in recent years peasants from the North and indigenous people from the jungle have also been forced to flee their homes.

The cause of their displacement has varied over time. In the early 1980s, most internal displacement was caused by the army, which failed to distinguish between the local peasant population and Shining Path cadres, and consequently considered every indigenous peasant a potential subversive. Army massacres of families and entire villages were common, especially during 1983 and 1984. Soldiers, largely mestizos recruited from coastal cities, had little contact with Peru's indigenous peasantry before being sent to the countryside. Their ingrained racist attitudes contributed to military brutality against the highland population.

By the mid-1980s, peasant resistance to Shining Path's logic of autarky and "encircling the city from the countryside" was growing. During this period, peasants–while still fearful of the army–also began to flee from Shining Path. Others decided to form defense patrols to protect themselves against Shining Path, and ironically, many actively sought army support in this endeavor. By 1990, displacements were mostly due to Shining Path's violent tactics against peasants organized in army-led defense patrols.

But given the harsh conditions in their supposed sanctuaries, most displaced people desire to return to their villages rather than settle into their places of refuge. CEPRODEP, a development organization that has worked for several years with the displaced population in Ayacucho and Lima–and that assisted in organizing the visit to Nuñuhuaycco-Patahuasi–is actively encouraging the option of return. "We are trying to promote a small number of pilot projects, which will help us formulate concrete proposals toward a National Plan of Return in the not-too-distant future,” explains Isabel Coral director of CEPRODEP, and herself a refugee of the violence. By pushing the theme of return, Coral argues, the government may be induced to commit resources to refugee resettlement. For Coral, this may be the opportune moment. With the capture of Shining Path mastermind Abimael Guzmán, along with a number of other key leaders, the mystique that gave Shining Path an image of invincibility has been destroyed.

Others who work with internal refugees express more caution. "These are areas that have been completely destroyed," says Veronica Molina of the Catholic Church's social action office. "To return, the people require economic assistance to help reconstruct their homes and their farms. The government has no plan to assist in this sense. In addition, the countryside has not yet been pacified. Guzmán has been captured, but the security problems continue. What guarantees can the State offer these people if they return?"

"I understand completely the desire of the displaced to return to their homelands," says Ana Maria Rebaza, a social worker and director of SUYASUN ("we have hope" in Quechua), an organization that provides various social services to internal refugees in Lima. "But we are concerned that the issue of return is being taken too lightly. People may feel that Shining Path is no longer all-powerful, but they have not evaluated the true situation. Shining Path has not been defeated… The country is not yet pacified. How can the defense patrols, with little more than three Winchesters, confront Shining Path's sophisticated weapons?"

Recent signs from the Fujimori Administration in favor of a resettlement process may be little more than political opportunism. It does not seem coincidental that the government–after a decade of silence on the displaced–began talking about assistance at the precise moment that an international mission of the International Group of Voluntary Associations brought several specialists to Peru to study the situation of the internally displaced. It has been noted, moreover, that it is quite convenient for Fujimori to promote a resettlement process, which lends legitimacy to his counter-insurgency strategy and suggests that the pacification process is moving ahead smoothly. Fujimori can certainly point to important successes in the counter-insurgency war, including not only the capture of Guzmán, but also the virtual dismantling of Shining Path's Central and Metropolitan Lima Committees, and the reestablishment of control in the prisons, once used as Shining Path indoctrination centers. Most analysts point to these successes to explain Fujimori's continuing high popularity rating, despite the deep economic recession.

But the fact of the matter is that Fujimori continues to focus on a military solution to the problem. He has failed to incorporate any meaningful development assistance to the poor into his counter-insurgency program. Military hand-outs to the poor ("civic action programs") won't do the trick. And the authoritarian basis of his government has prevented him from building a broad-based alliance against Shining Path. Moreover, the extreme politicization of the military, exacerbated by politically motivated dismissals and promotions–largely the handiwork of Fujimori's closest advisor, Vladimiro Montesinos–has resulted in a series of small-scale rebellions within military ranks.

Nonetheless, the issue of return is on the table. A resettlement process requires a well-thought-out plan that incorporates development initiatives and reconstruction aid with basic security guarantees. If the Fujimori government is sincere, it must not only deliver on its promises to pacify the country by 1995, but it must also help tens of thousands of Peruvians whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed by a cruel war fed by social misery and ethnic exclusion. 




Jo-Marie Burt is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Columbia University, and is currently engaged in fieldwork in Peru. She is the co-author of Caught in the Crossfire (Peru Peace Network, 1992).



Read the rest of NACLA's July/August 1993 issue: "Latin American Women: The Gendering Of Politics And Culture."

Tags: Peru, refugee, shining path, displaced, violence

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.