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Life in Peru

Kelsey Waples
Ayacucho, Peru
Saturday, June 11, 2011

I arrived in Peru just 8 short days ago, but much has already happened in this time. I can practically feel my brain growing as each moment presents a new lesson to be learned. Many of the lessons are practical, such as how to ride the crazy micro-buses (no need to hold so tight to the hand bar, just sway with the crowd as the micro crashes around town), try not to use the loo in the middle of the night because you'll wake the rooster, and be liberal with the DEET inspect spray when in the campo (countryside). Some are a real joy – yes, we siesta here in Ayacucho and the masamora (pumpkin porridge) is delicious! And some are life-saving, such as how to cross the street—at run, dodging the oncoming traffic. While these lessons of survival and lifestyle come quickly, Ayacucho has much more to teach, lessons which I am only just beginning to comprehend.

I'm working with the legal department of a human rights organization called Paz y Esperanza (PyE) and spent my first week translating case summaries from Spanish to English for their website and to familiarize myself with their work. The 1980's and '90's were an era of tremendous internal conflict for Peru as the government struggled to defeat the Maoist terrorist organization, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). The indigenous Quechuans living in the remote Andean highlands of Ayacucho saw the worst of the violence; they were under both the constant attack of the Senderistas who sought food, shelter and men for their army, as well as the ruthless and often arbitrary harassment, detainment and extrajudicial execution of alleged terrorist-sympathizers by the Peruvian military.

I spent my first week reading about the Callqui case where army troops burst into a peaceful mass and forced the congregation to sing loudly while they took four young people into the interior and murdered them. And the Putis case, where, at the urging of the army, several entire highland communities moved closer to a military base in order to be protected from the Senderistas. Shortly thereafter, army soldiers invaded the settlement, separated the men from the women, took the men out to the hills to dig pools to farm fish in and raped the women. The men were then shot and pushed into the pools they had just dug, followed by the women and children. And the Sillaccasa case where the army arbitrarily detained nine campesinos (rural peasants), beat them with rifle butts in the community center as a warning to potential terrorist-sympathizers, marched them through several towns to spread the message and later murdered them. I read the facts, the dates, the names, the evidence, the exhumation reports and newspaper clippings. I learned about the context, the history, the current status of the cases and the roadblocks in the Peruvian justice system. However, none of this carefully documented information taught me as much about the unspeakable crimes and need for justice as I learned from the victims themselves.

On Friday I was able to accompany the PyE mental health workers on a trip to hold group therapy sessions for victims in two rural communities. To pass the day with the "mamás," as the Quechuan women are called, was to learn on a different level, with the heart instead of the mind. The sessions were in Quechua with only bits of Spanish, so I didn't understand many of the specifics, but human emotion translates, and as tears streamed down their faces, their pain was raw, deep and heartbreaking. We concluded with a lively Peruvian dance, which included Simon Says-type interludes where we'd follow someone's orders, such as jumping, screaming or tickling your neighbor. Sharing in the laughter and release with these beautiful, old women was pure joy. And yes, I can cross "Tickle a Quechan mamá" off my bucket list.

I'd like to sum up this blog post with the neat, well-written lesson I learned from my day with the mamás, but unlike learning a new mode of transportation, processing the reality of such inhumanity and tremendous struggle for justice and healing eludes description at this point. Suffice to say, I've learned much about the depths, but also something about the heights of the human spirit.