They rode white horses

Peter Canby

  • Intimate Enemies: Violence and Reconciliation in Peru by Kimberly Theidon
    Pennsylvania, 461 pp, £49.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 8122 4450 2

Kimberly Theidon is an example of a new breed of anthropologist, one bearing some resemblance to a political activist. Her book is part of a series of studies in human rights but one of the blurbs on the jacket calls it an ethnography. Its subject is the process of reconciliation that followed a failed, exceptionally violent uprising by Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, a Maoist group founded by a provincial philosophy professor in Peru called Abimael Guzmán, who hoped, as Theidon puts it, to ‘mobilise the peasantry, surround the cities, and strangle the urbanised coast into submission’.

Shining Path’s first ‘armed action’ took place in 1980, timed for maximum visibility, on the day of a national election. The movement fell apart 12 years later, after Guzmán was captured in Lima, in hiding in a flat above a ballet studio. But over the years it was active there were savage battles between Shining Path, the Peruvian army and the rondas campesinas – paramilitary patrols of villagers, intended to repel the guerrillas. In parts of the remote highlands – particularly in Ayacucho, where Guzmán had taught and the movement was based – the violence was extreme. Both sides committed massacres, as villagers fought hand to hand – sometimes against their neighbours. This was not, Theidon writes, ‘a sanitised war in which buttons were pushed and bombs delivered. The fighting was carried out with knives, rocks, slingshots, tirachas (homemade guns).’ Houses were burned and 65 per cent of the fields in Ayacucho were abandoned. The countryside was littered with pueblos fantasmas, ghost towns. Most livestock was killed; many residents fled for safety to mountain caves. There, in an effort to ‘trick their stomachs’, mothers fed their children water flavoured with salt, but many died of starvation. All told, between 1980 and 1992, seventy thousand Peruvians were killed. As Theidon notes, 79 per cent of the victims were rural and three quarters were speakers of Quechua or other native languages. In virtually every other insurgency in Latin America the vast majority of the killing was done by the state; here slightly more than half was committed by Shining Path itself.

Theidon’s interest in Shining Path began in 1987, when she first visited Peru as an undergraduate at the University of California Santa Cruz. Her initial stay was brief. The war was raging and it was a time of hyperinflation, curfews and blackouts – Santa Cruz soon stopped sending its students to Peru. But Theidon stayed long enough to be able to frame what she sees as ‘deceptively simple questions’ about the conflict: ‘how do people commit acts of lethal violence against individuals with whom they have lived for years? How can family members and neighbours become enemies one is willing to track down and kill?’ When Theidon returned to Peru in 1995, the war was over and she began working with Quechua-speaking communities, wanting not just to find the answers to her questions but to ‘explore how people reconstruct individual lives and collective existence in the aftermath of war’.

There was another question Theidon wanted answered. In its early years, the war in the highlands had seemed remote from Lima. That changed after an incident in 1983 that brought Shining Path to international attention. Eight journalists from newspapers in Lima arrived in Ayacucho, intending to investigate a story that peasants in Huaychao, a remote town, had violently repelled members of Shining Path – a movement that billed itself as champion of the rural poor. The army (which the new civilian government had been reluctant to involve in the conflict) had only just been allowed to launch its counter-insurgency campaign and Lima’s leftist press were claiming that the reports of villagers driving off Shining Path were part of its disinformation campaign. On their way to Huaychao, the journalists and their Quechua-speaking guide arrived unannounced in Uchuraccay, a nearby Indian town, where they were attacked by villagers, who bludgeoned and hacked them to death. Willy Retto, one of the journalists, managed to take pictures of what happened before he too was murdered and buried, with his camera, in a shallow grave.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in