Ayacucho: Recovery is slow from Shining Path movement

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 1, 2007

Editor’s note: Former Post reporter Sara Pitzer recently worked as an international volunteer in Ayacucho, Peru. These are her observations.

By Sara Pitzer

For The Salisbury Post

AYACUCHO, PERU — The nature of this town depends on who describes it.

Tourism literature says Ayacucho is “calm and quiet with old streets full of charm,” the city of 33 churches.

National surveys of health and economy say 72.5 percent of the population is so poor they can’t afford to buy basic foods and 45.4 percent can’t afford an adequate calorie intake of any kind. The shacks of squatters extend from the edges of town up into the hills.

Historical information suggests that the earliest architectural site found in the area goes back to 23,000 B.C. And the Quechua culture in this part of the Andes is 1,500 years old.

Moving forward in history, school-textbook dates include the Spaniard Pizarro’s takeover in 1539 and the Battle of Ayacucho, Dec. 9, 1824, which ended Spanish reign. This part of history accounts for the fact that local artisans make chess sets of alabaster or ceramic, in which the playing pieces are always Incas and Spaniards.

Artists and crafters have also used paintings and ceramics to depict the events of the Maoist guerilla movement, the Sandero Luminoso, Shining Path. It’s gory stuff — murder, torture, people bleeding, women weeping and heaps of dead bodies.

The movement began in Ayacucho, established by Abimael Guzmán, a professor at the local university and charismatic leader of the Communist Party of Peru. The movement was active from 1970 to 1992, terrorizing Peruvians, especially peasants of the high country. Military reactionaries countered with equal brutality. By the time it was over, at least 70,000 people were either known dead, or missing and probably dead.

All these stories of Ayacucho are true, yet conflicting. Streets are charming in the center of town, around the plaza and the markets, but many other streets are unpaved or lined with the rubble of old paving. Sidewalks, if they exist at all, are often broken.

The Quechua women, whose full skirts, petticoats and leggings are so colorful in photographs, often look tired and dusty in person.

And it would be hard to find anyone whose life hasn’t been affected by the Sandero Luminoso, which destroyed buildings, blew up electrical plants and killed entire villages of people.

Many are still trying to understand why both the guerillas and the military ravaged their population in what seemed to be random violence. It ruined local economy and infrastructure. It destroyed homes, hospitals, businesses and schools. Recovery is slow.

But it’s calm. Tourism is beginning to develop slowly in the city of churches.

It’s hard for tourists, focused on historical sites and colonial buildings, to grasp what life is like in and around the city, beyond tourist attractions.

A volunteer worker has the advantage of opportunities to know local people and their situations, learning what can’t be seen from a tour bus. The organization in which I participated is Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS), which provides a comfortable home base for volunteers, helps them into work placements for about four hours a day and offers instruction in history, language and culture of the area.

CCS has been in operation since 1995 and now has programs in 11 different countries. It is a non-profit organization with no political or religious affiliation. In Ayacucho, CCS volunteers work in day care wawa wasis (which translates roughly to “children’s homes”), schools, orphanages, the Yanamilla Prison, health care programs and other community initiatives.

At my request, I worked in Los Licenciados — a soup kitchen that feeds 25 families each day. The charge is one sole for adults and 50 centimeos for children — the equivalent of about 30 and 15 cents in U.S. currency.

The “kitchen” is a fading blue cement building, about 10 feet by 10 feet, set in a space between two other buildings. It has no electricity. The open area is packed, dry earth that turns to mud when it rains. An outside sink with a single faucet provides a place to wash vegetables and pots.

I, like many volunteers, spent a day or so away from the regular placement to see others. One day we took the children of Yanamilla Prison to the park. Children whose mothers are in the prison (mostly for transporting cocoa leaves to the drug trade) live with them until the age of 3, after which the children move to an orphanage.

Another day we spent time in an orphanage. In the orphanages, older children attend school, babies sleep and are cared for in rows of cribs in nurseries. Toddlers play with bright plastic toys in another area. Neither staff workers nor volunteers are supposed to hold up these toddlers because there aren’t enough adults to keep up the attention. If children receive such cuddling, the reasoning goes, they will suffer more when it is missing.

Young children on the streets, apparently without supervision, startle many volunteers.

So does the traffic. The most common, least expensive transportation is the motor taxi, or moto. These three-wheeled devices swerve around cars and buses, squeezing between them wherever a space opens. At intersections, it’s apparently first come, first through.

All drivers go around anything moving too slowly, and at blind intersections they beep the horn to indicate they’re not stopping. Larger vehicles outclass small ones, so a big bus goes ahead without much interference, while vans come next, and motos treat the roadways like bumper car rides at the fair. All vehicles dodge each other, dogs, pedestrians, potholes and rocks piled in the road.

From the street, one sees many houses with flat roofs from which protrude metal supports, pipes and rebar, with stacks of brick nearby. People who can afford to build homes of such materials do it a floor at a time as they accumulate the money. One house across from the CCS home base took 15 years to complete.

Even after a building is finished, its roof is a busy place, with everything from fire pits and clotheslines to food and shelter areas for guinea pigs.

Life in the countryside is different. Here, villagers, often speaking only Quechua, have small homes with not much in them. They grow vegetables in family gardens and work fields with primitive equipment and pack animals. A tractor is a rare sight. Staple foods are rice and potatoes.

This is the area where much of the Shining Path slaughter took place. When the children in a kindergarten found a human skull that they played with, it seemed likely that it came from a victim of a massacre.

But Ayacucho has yet another personality, too, an increasingly westernized middle-class appearance. Young people wear jeans in the current boot-cut style. Men and women and their children gather around the plaza for the frequent parades. People buy ice cream and use the Internet and listen to CDs. You may hear Willie Nelson in an Internet café. Early Simon and Garfunkel music is part of the atmosphere at La Cubańa pizzeria.

All this is only steps away from the open air market where you can buy everything from alpaca knitting yarn to plucked chickens to shampoo, and where dogs wander in and out at will.

A tourist doesn’t see all of Ayacucho in a single trip. Neither does a volunteer.


Freelance writer Sara Pitzer lives in Richfield. Visit her Web site at www.planetpitzer.com.


Coming Wednesday: Sara Pitzer shares a taste of Peru.