June 30, 2011
I believe the mind-body connection is a strong one and that our bodies often alert us to emotional imbalances more quickly than we admit them to ourselves. So when Wednesday began with hot chocolate and a sweet tamale for breakfast and lunch included a lemonade-passion fruit slushie followed by a strawberry meringue…and then a vanilla meringue…I knew something was up. I nearly put a stop to the sugar-a-thon by starting the long walk home, but mid-way up the hill I made an abrupt 180˚and returned to the Centro for some mayuchi—homemade peanut ice cream. (In my defense, the Quechuan mamás only sell it on holidays and weekends, so this was a rational decision based on the probability I'd be in the Centro on one of my few remaining weekend days—at least that's what I told myself). But it didn't stop there, dinner consisted of kettle corn and oatmeal cookies. Curling up in bed that evening, my body shouted, "¡Basta! (Enough!)," which my mind and heart echoed, wearily.
As Ayacucho was the department most heavily affected by the internal conflict of the 1980's and 1990's, all my work here centers around cases stemming from the extreme violence of that era. I began by skimming through several case files to get an idea of the investigation and judicial processes here and then focused in on the Putis case. Briefly, the military encouraged several communities of Andean campesinos (rural peasants) to relocate from their remote mountain villages to the outskirts of the Putis military base in order to be better protected from the Sendero Luminoso terrorist attacks. Shortly thereafter, the troops separated out the men, raped the women, and then shot and buried all in several mass graves. The official report from Truth and Reconciliation Commission lists 123 victims, including 27 children between 6 months and 13 years old.
The story is truly atrocious, but I've read the stories of child soldiers in Rwanda and child prostitutes in India, and watched enough Hollywood gore, heartbreaking documentaries and 5'oclock news to continue through the file without much ado. However, as the days tick by, I'm beginning to feel saturated with horrifying details. There are commanding generals known only by nicknames and letters from the Department of Defense expressing "sincere regret" that they were unable to locate the service records of specific officers or personnel records for entire bases. There are lists of victims and extensive DNA-testing reports to establish identity and family relations. There are letters sent to the Canadian embassy requesting information on suspected defendants. A forensics report states that the wounds indicate an attack by an armed group on unarmed victims. Just this week I read through a report from the psychological analysis of one of only two survivors . It describes a shattered life, more pain than any human can process.
Then, last week I had the opportunity to visit the government forensics lab in charge of analyzing exhumed remains in order to establish identity and cause of death. Thirteen skeletons from the Chungari case, neatly labeled and laid out on tables, looked somewhat calm, almost at peace, in their precisely organized state. It was the clothes stashed under each table, now dirty, torn and bloodstained, that quietly shattered this illusion by revealing something of the life behind each generic set of bones and the horror that brought each one there. Holding back tears, I could picture the vibrant young woman who once proudly wore the bright yellow tank top and the humble farmer harvesting potatoes in his navy cable-knit sweater.
To top it all off, thanks to a Border's liquidation sale, my evening reading has been The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Little, a novel about the Holocaust. It's written from the perspective of an SS officer and attempts, with disturbingly precise detail, to explain how ordinary men carried out the daily dirty work of The Final Solution. I figured it would be an appropriate dovetail to the atrocities I'd be learning about here as both explore the human capacity to act with extreme inhumanity. Plus, at 975 pages for $5.63, the student in me couldn't pass up such a deal. Hindsight is truly 20/20 and perhaps it was not the wisest choice to cap long days at the office with long nights diving further into the abyss.
At this point, my sense of hope and passionate outrage is losing the struggle against profound sadness and a sense of defeat in the face of monstrous obstacles. Thankfully, in a few days I'm taking a well-timed trip to Cusco and Machu Pichhu, which will give me some space to process and re-balance. When I return, it will be time to seek out stories of survival, healing and justice, to focus less on the dark past and more on the bright future that so many are contributing to in so many ways.
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