Recorded in Stone: The women of Peru’s Shining Path, revisited
University of London Institute of Latin American Studies Historizando un pasado problemático y vivo en la memoria: Argentina, Chile, Perú Taller 16-17 de octubre, 2003 @ For Website only and not to be cited without permission of the author. Sólo para leer en la Web, no citar sin permiso del autor.
Using the story of Betty, a former Shining Path fighter in Peru, I open a discussion of her memories of being an agent of violence in Peru as well as her unusual position as a story teller speaking as someone who committed atrocities – and admits it. Most often, it seems to me, those who have participated in acts of great violence are loathe to talk about it with any degree of openness, detail or selfawareness. This is particularly true of rank-and-file members: not the leadership, but the foot soldiers, who joined a cause out of conviction, perhaps, but often leavened with a desire for adventure or a sense of boredom with their lives. Therefore, the history of such periods is not, to a large degree, written but the violent, but by the survivors, by the witnesses, or by the political figures who may have wielded violence, but did not take direct part in it. Who among Arkan’s Tigers has penned a Balkan memoir? Have Foday Sankoh’s henchmen written a chronicle of the violence that tore apart Sierra Leone, and many Sierra Leonians? There have certainly been spirited accounts of atrocities by military men belonging to regular forces –Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich (1970) and Spandau: The Secret Diaries (1976) come to mind, followed by tales penned by American soldiers, most recently Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, an account of his experiences as an American marine during the Gulf War. In 2001, French General Paul Aussaresses published Services speciaux, Algerie 1955-1957, leading to his conviction in January 2003 for “complicity in justifying war crimes” - a press offense with a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment and a $41,000 fine. So not only are most people unwilling to record
their storied about what happened during periods of violence – they can actually be convicted for formalizing memory, or as Aussaresses put in during his trial, “the duty of bearing witness.” Certainly, the question of memory remain a controversial and difficult one in Peru as in other countries that have experienced pronounced violence. The violence there was not distant or faceless. It was up close, known, identified. Attackers and victims were neighbors, school mates, teachers, health workers. People knew, and they knew that they knew. Some communities attending Truth Commission hearings have protested the telling of truth, arguing that they have already made peace and do not want to dredge up the past. Others remain convinced that the past remains largely unexamined – and certainly, that atrocities remain unpunished. Thinking back on my interview with Betty, questions of justice or truth remained far in the future, unthinkable. What she seemed to want to do more than anything else was confess. It was a personal decision, and almost a religious one. Here I was, this stranger, who wanted to hear her story. After it was told, I would vanish. I think Betty need to talk, but without worrying that her words would result in an accusation against her or any kind of punishment. She needed to tell the story, to bear witness. And then she wanted to be left alone to continue with the new life that she had made for herself. “Before turning the page,” General Aussaresses in the introduction to his book, “it is necessary that the page be read and, therefore, written.” Betty and her friend were the youngest ever to join their unit. At first, camping out was like a game. Betty had visited farms before, but she was a town girl at heart, used to the nearness of the square and its belled church. Some days, they would march twelve hours up and down the steep gorges. It was exhausting. She fantasized about collapsing beside the streams that cut the trail, sucking in her fill of thin, cold air. But she didn’t. She studied harder than she ever had in school. They carried no texts, instead noting down passages from Marx and Lenin and Mao and especially President Gonzalo, the Shining Path’s leader, memorized and recited by the more experienced comrades. Betty used her algebra notebook from high school, but wrote in red ink only. Soon, her script was as neat and ordered as a typewritten page. Criticism sessions were held almost every night. Once, she was criticized for not speaking up. How could she become a true revolutionary if she never opened her mouth? She vowed publicly and in grateful tears to reform. Comrades clapped her on the back. To Betty, it felt like love.
The goal, she was told, was to forge true revolutionaries. The Iron Legions! She was to hide nothing -- nothing! -- from the Party. Betty learned how to hold a gun and clean it, how to storm a police station and set an ambush. More important than skill was the Thought -- Gonzalo Thought. She would even dream it, their glorious President Gonzalo before her, his shape huge and imposing against a brilliant red dawn. Soon, Betty shouted like the most experienced cadres, her fist clenched and her face filled with love. Love for the Party, love for the people, the comrades, love for battle. President Gonzalo said it could take fifty years. She was ready! It made no difference that she was a woman. They were revolutionaries -- warriors -- equal in the quest for justice. Betty’s language skills made her indispensable. As a child, she had learned Quechua, the Inca language still spoken throughout the southern Andes. In contrast, the older comrades had never learned more than they needed to understand their servants or swear on the playground. Betty became their interpreter. At night, the comrades would call villagers to meetings. They would tell them about the People’s War, about rising up. The People’s Army had to kill the wealthy, kill the corrupt, kill the adulterers, kill the thieves. They would fall on the cities, dens of corruption, and destroy with the cleansing fire of revolution. Betty made her sentences ring so that even the ones crouched beyond the veil of light from the lantern could hear. Betty ended up leaving her unit without permission, and became a traitor in the eyes of her former colleagues. In the Shining Path universe, treachery is unforgivable. Punishment begins with criticism and self-criticism sessions. It ends only with the accused vanquished, undone, destroyed. I also interviewed women in the Shining Trench, the name its residents gave to the prison cellblock where women accused and convicted of belonging to the Shining Path were held when I visited in 1991. My reasons for going were simple. What where these women like, I wondered, in a group, at their strongest? It had to do with official versions, not press fancies or Betty’s tragedy. How would they choose to present themselves? In the prison, most journalists visited the men. But for me, the women were the mysteries: Sybila Arredondo de Arguedas, the wife of the late Peruvian novelist José María Arguedas, the German Renata Herr. At the time, the highest ranking cadre inside was Laura Zambrano, convicted of having ordered six murders and at least twenty-eight bombings while she led the military committee responsible for metropolitan Lima.
Getting official permission to enter the prison was not difficult. Getting permission to enter the Shining Trench was another matter. The women themselves had to decide. The delegate agreed that discussion was necessary to agree on the terms of a tour. We were shown to a table. What brought us, who sent us? she wanted to know. Who did we work for, what was their stand on the People's War? Finally, I discuss my conversation with Ruth, a fellow journalist. Ruth’s parents were European who had moved to Peru after her birth, then divorced. Ruth told me a story about Lydia, a senderista commander Ruth had once met. Several years earlier, Ruth and two television reporters had gone in search of the Shining Path. The leader of one column was willing to entertain the possibility of having reporters along. The reporters were to be treated as prisoners of war until the Central Committee decided whether or not they would be granted an interview, something the Shining Path had never done. Lydia, Ruth explained to me, was exceptional. She was nineteen, a high school graduate, whose fondest wish had once been to get a job as a bilingual secretary for an American oil company with wells off the north coast, near Lydia’s home. At twilight, Lydia would organize volleyball and soccer games between la columna and the masses, area farmers. From the hilltops where they camped, Ruth could see the police and Army helicopters, gun doors open, buzzing the valleys below. Once, bathing at a stream with Lydia, Ruth said a US Drug Enforcement Administration helicopter swung by so close she could see the gunner, his face ant-like with its protective goggles. Lydia’s gun was behind them in the grass. She didn't even reach for it. “Don't worry,” she told Ruth. “Nos tienen miedo (They are afraid of us).” Ruth never doubted that if the Central Committee had ordered them killed, they would have been killed. Yet, as she talked on her patio, the memory of Lydia undid her. Every morning before leaving the hut, Lydia would adjust Ruth’s blanket, tucking her in. The column, its frozen logic, existed, Ruth had no doubt. Yet it did not preclude a tenderness Ruth had not known even as a child. “There was something so admirable, yet so frightening about what Lydia had chosen to make of her life,” Ruth told me. “In some ways, these young people are the best Peru has to offer. And this is what they have chosen. On one level, it requires great respect. On another, I can only contemplate it with fear and repulsion.” This is also one of the problems with recording memories of atrocities, especially if you are hearing these things from someone who has committed them. How do you manage disgust. Where is your sympathy? How do you listen
without disapproval – or should you? Where does recording become complicity, and is it worth it? The question of who gets to tell the story of violence and the consequences of that story told is one of the great questions for the future. At a time when the world grows smaller for human rights abusers – with dictators on the run, bloody generals faced with real courts, demagogues in shackles brought before their victims and paramilitaries facing the rest of their lives in jail – the ramifications are real. Where do we strike the balance between justice and peace? Is it even right or moral to talk of it as a “balance”? And what happens to the truth-tellers, like Betty, who finally find their voice? Sharing memories and fixing them in the permanent record is crucial, there can be little doubt. Yet it is facile to stop there. Once the story is told, there must be action taken not only to make that story available, but also to insure that such things can never happen again. In that, there is still much to be done. This paper has no real conclusion, since I hope, through the medium of this conference, to take part in a broader dialogue about what those actions need to be.