Note to Self: What I Learned in Peru

Kids in Pampamarca, Peru.  The majority
of those killed during the conflict were
from indigenous communities like this in the highlands

It was November 2002 and I was sitting in a small conference room in Lima, taking notes as a woman tearfully relayed the story of her 9 years in detention. As she spoke, low and soft, the woman (who I’ll call Lourdes) cradled a newborn baby bundled in a pink blanket.

I had left my own 9 month old baby at home to lead a volunteer team on a one week trip to Peru to monitor the work of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación or CVR). I had just recently returned to work after an extended maternity leave and, I have to say, I count those months of being at home with a potty-training toddler and a nocturnal infant as some of the toughest of my life.

Our team was interviewing Lourdes and several other inocentes or “innocents”. Between 1980 and 2000, the conflict between the Peruvian government and the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) rebel groups resulted in approximately 69,000 people killed and disappeared. As many as 600,000 were internally displaced; I remember seeing the tent cities on the outskirts of Lima where thousands of people who had fled the political violence in the highlands had lived for twenty years.

Lourdes was one of more than 14,000 Peruvians who were detained, tortured, and denied a fair trial under 1992 anti-terrorism decrees. She told us about the day she was arrested in early 1993. She and her husband were students. They had a three-and-a-half year old son who had health problems, so she had left the house before daybreak to get medicine for him. As she was returning to her house, she was stopped and arrested by the National Directorate Against Terrorism. It turns out that the Shining Path had bombed a nearby part of Lima. Lourdes and four other women who also happened to be out early that morning were arrested, blindfolded and interrogated. “One police officer told us that all of us would die,” she said quietly. Two hours after they were arrested, they were exhibited to the media at a press conference. The arrest was presented as a triumph over terrorism.

For the first several months, Lourdes was detained on a military base. The conditions were very bad and she was tortured. She didn’t go into the details and we didn’t ask her to tell us more. I remember her saying that she was allowed to use the bathroom only once a day – with 3-4 soldiers pointing their rifles at her. She was only allowed to bathe once a week. Lourdes was later moved to a prison, which she described as looking “like a paradise” compared to the military base.

Lourdes’ husband, who we also interviewed that day, had been arrested a month later. His father had to go to the police station to recover their little son, who was cared for by relatives for the next 9 years. Six months later, one of Peru’s “faceless” courts (called that because a one-way mirror concealed the identity of the prosecutors and judges) found Lourdes and her husband guilty of treason and sentenced them to life in prison.

Lourdes and her husband were not allowed to see each other during their detention and their letters to each other were read. For one whole year during her detention, after her sentence was reduced to 30 years, she was not allowed to have visits from anyone. Eventually, Lourdes and her husband were able to submit their cases to a Presidential pardons panel. She was pardoned in 2001, just a few weeks before the ninth anniversary of her arrest.

The interviews went on for more than six hours, but either Lourdes or her husband held that baby for the entire time. They didn’t put her in her carrier or pass her to the others who offered to hold her. They just took turns holding her close. I remember Lourdes saying to me afterwards, “We lost so much time with our son. Now he is a teenager and we’re strangers to him.”

Lourdes’ story highlights some of the problems of a government response to terrorism that doesn’t provide adequate protections for due process and other rights in the administration of justice. The Peruvian experience with terrorism seemed strikingly relevant back in 2002, when the US human rights community was very concerned about just how far the War on Terror might go. But I also learned an important personal lesson that day.

My friend Jim once had to share an office with an extremely annoying coworker. My friend kept a yellow post-it note stuck under his desk that said, “IGNORE ANTHONY”. Whenever the guy was bugging him, he would stick his head under the desk and read that post-it note. I don’t have a post-it note, but I do have a strong visual image of interviewing Lourdes that day in Lima. Whenever I feel that parenthood is more than I bargained for (which, frankly, was twice yesterday), I pluck that image from my garden of memories and think to myself: “REMEMBER LOURDES”.

If you’d like to learn more:

  • To see photos of life in Peru, go to the photo gallery on The Advocates for Human Rights website (click here.)
  • Some background on the anti-terrorism laws and why the system produced so many inocentes (click here.)
  • There is a 9-minute video summary of the Peruvian CVR’s findings related to the inocentes and human rights abuses in the 1990s: CVR Final Report: Fujimori and the Destruction of Democracy  It provides a good overview, but be advised that it does contain some graphic images.
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