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Peru: Reconciliation After 20 Years Of Violence

Peru: Reconciliation After 20 Years of Violence

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Ayucucho region of Peru


Peru experienced 20 years of violence between 1980 -2000 in which nearly 70,000 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands were displaced and left homeless. Although much time has passed since this ‘time of violence’ ended, the pain and suffering remains and its legacy of broken relationships, lingering anger, heightened everyday structural and cultural violence, and general disconnection within communities continues.  Centro Loyola of Ayucucho, an NGO active in those areas of Peru most affected by the violence, have been working to transform this legacy of violence by organizing a series of dialogues for all those who took part or were impacted by the 20 years of violence.

Memorial graves for the disappeared 


In May 2019 Centro Loyola organized a dialogue with former rebels from the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso -SL- in Spanish) and MRTA; former military personnel; those who were directly affected by the violence; and people who are working in various social services to address these issues.  In all 37 people came together for 3 days of dialogue using the Restorative Circle process as developed by Dominic Barter.  This process enables the participants to be able to talk directly with each other about their experiences during the violence and to be heard until they felt understood, the first time such a dialogue has taken place in Peru. 

Initially each group met separately with the facilitation team to have the opportunity to begin to share their experiences and to have them be received with empathy by the team. It enabled the participants to begin to get some relief from their emotional pain, to get more clarity about what they wanted to share in the direct dialogue, and to begin to build connections with each other and the facilitators. 

During the Pre-Circle with former rebels one elderly SL rebel spoke for nearly 40 min about his experiences. His thoughts were jumbled and disorganized and he had great difficulty completing one story before launching into another one. He reported that he had a really hard time ordering his thoughts – that one just flows into another and it seems to him he is making sense but he just cannot stop. Even when encouraged and directly supported it was nearly impossible for him to find and stay with what was important for him to say. Yet the facilitator stayed with him and kept reflecting back to him the deeper meaning of what was being shared. In the Circle the next day when he spoke to the first question of the dialogue again he spoke for 30min with no break; and again there was difficulty following one train of thought; although this time he was eventually able to get out some main points. Again he was deeply listened to, this time by one of the participants with the facilitators support. By the third day something had shift for this man – he had taken the time to prepare his thoughts, to get clear what was most important for him to say and then to share it with everyone in less than 10 min. It was quite the transformation! You could see the relief on his face as he finally had clarity about what was most important for him to say and to be able to say it and have it be received with understanding and acceptance. It was a very meaningful experience for him.  

Speaking his pain in the Circle 


The evening of the first day when all participants had met in their separte groups with the facilitation team, there was a sense of relief that the participants are willing and able to express fully; that they were able to share their heartbreak and pain and have that be fully received; and each participant seemed to gain value from what they were experiencing. The next morning as we prepared for the direct dialogue of the circle there was palpable tension in the air – would the participants be willing to talk about their pain, their fears, their losses, the reasons for their choices? Would we as a facilitation team be able to hold their pain, and support them talking directly with those who were harmed and who caused the harm?

As all the participants filed into the room that morning there was great tension, excitement, and anticipation. In the beginning participants spoke briefly and only touched the surface of the pain that lay beneath; but as people got a sense of how their words were being received and held with care, slowly they began to dive deeper and express the pain that lay, for many, just below the surface. And so began two days of initially increasingly intense, yet powerfully vulnerable, and wondrously healing dialogue.

Those who were directly affected by the violence had horrendous stories of what life was like during the ‘time of violence’. They told stories of peoples throats being cut or killed in other ways right before their eyes; of living in terror all the time – one day being attacked by Shining Path, and then the next week or next month being attacked by the military for being suspected of being a member of Shining Path. One woman told of losing a husband and brother to Shining Path; later only to be raped by the military and driven from their home and land. Some told of the stigma of being from Ayacucho – when they fled to Lima many people there saw them as terrorists just because of where they were from. 

Speaking from the heart about her experiences 


Many of those directly affected by the violence, especially the women, spoke about not only losing their husbands and sons, and of being raped; but also of losing their houses, their land, and their education opportunities. All of this had an enormous impact on their future lives even to this day – because they did not have education or land they we’re only able to get lower quality/ lower paying jobs which meant less wages and income which meant they and their families lived in poor conditions which often resulted in their inability to send their children to school or to send them to inferior schools where the education was not complete. So not only did the period of violence affect them directly but even to this day it was affecting their children and their grandchildren.

One woman who is a Qechua speaker was very uncertain she would participate in the dialogue – like so many of the conflict affected her husband, brother, and son were killed by the rebels; she lost her home, her land, and even her chance for full education (she could not speak Spanish fully because of this).  After years of living in utter terror she, and what remained of her family, fled the region for Lima. She seemed to really sense the possibility of being heard but she still had so much anger in her she was afraid how it would express itself, whether or not she could control it, and what might be the consequences for her and those she directed her anger toward. She spoke about this in the Pre-Circle which was received with empathy. In the Circle she decided to stay to see how it unfolded and what it was like. As many different people spoke and began to share more deeply their experience she found the willingness to speak but initially she spoke only briefly for about 2 min. As the Circle progressed participants slowly began to share more deeply and intimately their pain and heartbreak and suffering. 

Others speaking opening the way


Late in the 1st day of the full dialogue, as we were about to move from the first question to the second question, this woman again put up her hand indicating that she wanted to say more to the first question. She then turned to one of the former SL rebels and asked him to be her primary listener (and he agreed). She began softly but with each passing moment it gained in strength and clarity until she was speaking very strongly and with full passion. She expressed her rage – “You rebels said you were fighting to try to make a better life for the indigenous peoples, for the poor, for the farmers… … then why did you attack us! Why did you kill us! How could you possibly believe that this would help us??!!”   

With great difficulty, and with support, slowly the man who was a former SL rebel was able to reflect back to her most of the meaning that he heard in her words. This seemed to momentarily assuage her anger. But then, understandably, it arose again: “You say you had a hard life and that you suffered – so you went to prison, but that was like a club (spa) compared to what we suffered. We lost our homes, our land, we had to run for our lives because of you! We lost everything!!” 

The relief of having spoken her truth to others


So this part of the dialogue continued…. And slowly her anger subsided, and her body and facial features relaxed as she was deeply heard by everyone, and understood by one of the people who was part of the group that her and her family had suffered from so acutely. During the second question she heard why this man (and so many other of the SL rebel group) joined SL, why he chose the life he did, and why he did what he did. And she heard what prison was really like for the SL and MRTA rebels.

Another participant was a former Shining Path rebel who participated in the dialogue. He came to the dialogue attired in the traditional cape and toque of the Quechua people and more specifically from his region of Cuzco. He wore it with pride and dignity. This man had participated in other dialogues but not one where he spoke directly to or was asked to reflect back directly from someone who had suffered from what he (presumably) and other SL members did. As one of the main representatives of the former SL rebels over the course of the first day of dialogue several of those directly affected by their violence asked him to reflect back what they said. In every case he was willing but as he reflected back the deeper meaning of the rapes, deaths, loss of land and home, fear and rage and enormous suffering that so many people experienced he began to struggle holding it all. To the credit of the dialogue team and especially to his great courage he worked with it. Sitting near to him I could see him struggle – it appeared to be the first time he was asked to take in, at such a deep level, the consequences of his actions. 

You could almost see the struggle within him – the choices he made, the power of the reasons behind taking those actions, the suffering they caused – all of that roiling and bumping up against each other inside of him. As the day wore on and more and more people spoke with passion about their experiences, he needed to take several breaks from the dialogue to rest, to sit in the sunlight quietly by himself to contemplate, absorb, integrate all that he was hearing and experiencing inside of himself. The dialogue team continually checked in with him and offered their support as needed. One powerful moment for him was taking in what the woman we met earlier had to say. Another powerful moment was when he had the opportunity to share what lead him to choose to join SL in the first place. He spoke of growing up in the Cuzco region, the son of poor Quechua farmers who struggled mightily just to survive. He saw his parents suffering, while at the same time he heard about and saw many in Peru who had much more than plenty, and he promised to change this, to make it more fair for those who worked their lives away for so little. He worked very hard in school and was able to attend college. It was during college in Lima that he became a student activist initially trying to create a more democratic and fair system of governance and access for all underprivileged groups on campus. With much hard work, and with the support of one up and coming professor, Alberto Fujimore, things were beginning to improve on campus. It almost seemed that their struggles were bearing fruit. And then Mr Fujimore decided to run for president; and all that he and so many other students worked for came crashing down. He became extremely disillusioned and hopeless – there was no way to change things for the better; the powerful and the privileged would always in the end have the advantage. It was during this time that he came under the influence of Abimael Guzman and his SL doctrine. The only way to change the system and make it fair for everyone was to overthrow the system; otherwise the powerful will always end up on top. So he joined the SL to bring more fairness and equality to everyone in Peru. When this man finished his story and had it deeply received he seemed to have some relief, some sense of his part of the story finding equal value with all those others who shared their story.

The pride and dignity from the Cuzco region


He reported to one person from the dialogue support team that he was feeling really bad in different moments of the dialogue and that is why he could not stay for parts of it. He was feeling really bad about himself in some moments and he got sick to his stomach. Then at one point he vomited ‘black yuck’ out of him and felt better after that. He said that it was really hard for him but that he thought the dialogue was very good and very powerful. He said that he would do it again. When I heard the black gunk he threw up tears came to my eyes – I was just imagining him releasing all the pain and hatred of so many years; removing from him all the inhumanness that he gave and received for some many years. When we had supper together after the end of the dialogue he seemed to me to be radiant; shining like I had not seen him; and with a large smile on his face – it really seems that despite how hard it was for him that he did experience a healing. 

Another dialogue participant was a former MRTA rebel who spent 27 years in prison for his actions. He told everyone what it was like to be in prison and gave first-hand examples of the harsh reality of prison life, thereby bringing clairty to those of the conflict-affected who thought living in prison was like a spa where all your needs were taken care of and you had no responsibilities. He talked about why MRTA came about; and how they saw themselves as ‘Robin Hoods’ – taking from the rich and giving to the poor. He said, “We chose the path of violence because we were convinced that it was the only way to bring about lasting change. But when our violence was returned with an equally harsh violence, the violence seemed to take on a life of its own, with its own logic and actions.” He has written a book to help today’s Peruvians to know more about the causes of the conflict and to help them to make different choices than he and his colleagues had.  And it was this man, along with many of the other participants who supported one woman to speak near the end of the dialogue when she had not found the courage or the safety to speak prior to that time. 

One former rebel supporting a conflict-affected person to speak


One of the participants in the dialogue was a government army soldier during the 20 years of violence, despite himself being from the indigenous community. He joined the military because his family was very poor and he needed a way to sustain himself and contribute back to his family. When the violence began he became increasingly involved in the region fighting against the SL rebel factions. He thought of himself as trapped – he didn’t want to be fighting against his countrymen reeling from the violence the army was using against everyone. And he felt he had very limited choices – to try to leave the army at that point was a death warrant for himself, and probably his family. Even today he still has some bitterness around the lack of choice and powerlessness he experienced – when many in the government we’re using their power and position to enrich themselves while the poor suffered; yet he also saw so many citizens take up guns and violence against the government but then ended up hurting the very people they were meant to be supporting. He has anger and rage presently in him when he experiences the current government as not caring for everyone equally. As in the past, that lack of equal caring for all can create parts of society that become desperate, learn to hate, and eventually resort to violence as the only way forward they can see to create the fairness and equality they so lack.

He has a lot of pain and regrets about the violence he was the part of. He initially thought he was there to protect people from the violence of the rebels; but he saw how the violence from one side inspired and invited violence from the other side in a spiraling cascade that set upon itself and brought violence to the very people they were supposedly protecting. 

A former soldier speaks his experience


Also he is afraid for the future because he was seeing the same thing that happened when he was young – the rich are getting richer, the poor are struggling more and more; they are starting to get angry with all the corruption and the lack of response from the government; which may (as it did in the past) lead people wanting to fight against the government; and then the government will once again ask young men (like he was) to fight against the poor people – his people – when they do not want to do that. He felt a lot of fear and helplessness about this cycle repeating itself in the not-so-distant future. 

When the dialogue was finished the woman who was afraid to speak at the beginning due to her anger walked over to the former SL rebel, put out her arms, gave him a big hug, and said to him that she forgave him for all that he did during the 20 years of violence! In the group picture we took at the end of the dialogue you can see these two sitting together, one in front of the other, both of their lives now so very different from when they started the dialogue!

The dialogue is complete!
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