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In Ayacucho

Scene at the public prosecutor's office (Photo: Belén Fernández)

The following is my latest post for the London Review of Books blog; click here to read the original.

Last week I carried a very small white coffin down the street in Ayacucho, Peru, birthplace of the Maoist guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso. It contained the remains of Alejandro Aguilar Yapo, killed along with an estimated 105 others in a day-long massacre in 1984. Aguilar’s bones had been arranged in the coffin that morning by employees of the public prosecutor’s office in Ayacucho, who unpacked them, along with the bones of three other victims exhumed last year from a mass grave, from the Motta panettone boxes in which they had been stored after seven months of forensic analysis. After a service in the cathedral, the victims’ families prepared to take their remains on the lengthy bus ride back home to Sicuani, 740 km away.

In the early 1980s, the residents of Soras, 200 km south-east of Ayacucho, had refused to join Sendero Luminoso. On the morning of 16 July 1984, a group of Senderista militants dressed as policemen boarded a bus – thereafter known as the ‘Expreso de la muerte’ – from Ayacucho to Soras. They killed the passengers and people in the villages the bus stopped at along the way. Aguilar and the others from Sicuani, wool traders unaffiliated with the opposition to Sendero Luminoso in Soras, were beaten to death when the bus stopped in Doce Corrales.

Most of the 4644 mass graves identified by Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Comission (CVR) as dating from the period of the armed conflict have yet to be exhumed. The official from Peru’s Human Rights Commission (COMISEDH) responsible for the Doce Corrales case told me that the primary goal of COMISEDH’s work was the assertion of memory in defiance of a government that, despite having established the CVR, didn’t adequately publicise the commission’s findings or implement its recommendations.

The reasons for the state’s recalcitrance aren’t hard to guess at. The COMISEDH official’s own memories of 1984 include the rape and murder of two of his sisters, aged 11 and 18, by members of the Peruvian armed forces during a raid on his village in which 28 people were killed. Two months later his father was disappeared by the army.

In December, remnants of Sendero Luminoso clashed with soldiers in the Valley of the Apurímac and Ene Rivers. According to another COMISEDH official, the government and the press downplayed the number of military fatalities. They also tend to portray such incidents as drug-related rather than political. One consequence of the official amnesia, the COMISEDH official told me, is the level of support among young Peruvians for the pro-Senderista Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights, which is campaigning to register as a political party.

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